Monday, January 26, 2009

Existing Home Sales Rise Unexpectedly: Is The End Near?

There has been a lot of talk this morning about the unexpected rise in existing home sales in December, and specifically whether or not it signals the beginning of the end. Unfortunately, we also saw a less positive statistic released: The median home sale price fell 15.3 percent in 2008—the largest drop on record since 1968, according to the Associated Press (AP). So what exactly are we to make of these statistics?

In my mind, this is positive news overall. First and foremost, property values are still too high and they will continue their decline until they reach equilibrium with income levels. That prices dropped so much means that we are ever closer to that point. Increased home sales in December is also a good sign, but one must wonder how much can be attributed to suppressed mortgage rates.

Most homebuyers do not look at the overall cost of the home, but rather focus on how much money they need to put down and the resulting monthly mortgage payment. When mortgage rates were under 5 percent, that dream home was suddenly within reach, and many people came down off the fence to buy. As rates rise again the opposite will happen.

Let’s also not lose site of the fact that thousands of people are losing their jobs every day, and as long as job losses and layoffs are on the rise, it is hard to imagine that the real estate market or any other sector of the economy will recover any time soon. And let’s keep in mind that although home sales increased in December, overall 2008 saw 13 percent fewer home sales than in 2007 and the lowest total since 1997, according to the AP.

This correction was necessary, and we are closer to recovery every day. I wouldn’t get too excited about it yet, as we should expect to see an over-correction before total recovery in this type of market, but as the chart below further illustrates, we are getting closer to what appears to be an historical equilibrium.

Housing chart

*Chart from The Mess That Greenspan Made.

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