It appears the government is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to fix the housing crisis, but there is one little problem: They can’t. As part of the new stimulus package, there will likely be a $15,000 homebuyer tax credit, and not just for first-time homebuyers, but for all homebuyers purchasing a primary residence. In addition, the government will likely attempt to drive mortgage rates down to around 4.5 percent and work particularly hard to modify troubled loans to keep homeowners out of foreclosure. With these new measures in place the housing market will surely recover…right?
The answer to that question depends on your definition of recovery. Will it be enough to stop prices from falling, and possibly even help them start going up again? It’s definitely possible, but the problem won’t be fixed even if prices do turn around. Artificially inflated prices caused the housing crisis in the first place. Homeownership became an attractive option for more people than ever before through financing options that were cheap and widely available—a little too widely available, we are now discovering. ARMs, interest-only and other creative loan programs kept monthly payments low, and people could suddenly afford a more expensive house—or so it appeared. When interest rates started rising and ARMs reset, housing values stopped climbing and all hell broke loose.
So why would we believe that artificially boosting housing values will be sustainable this time? What do we think will happen when mortgage rates rise again and the tax credits expire? We won’t have to worry about ARMs resetting this time around because they are now shunned by banks for the most part, but the fundamental problem remains that housing is just too expensive compared to income. Interest rates can’t stay this low forever, and the tax credit will expire after the end of the year. Then homebuyers will only have their personal income to rely on to pay for their homes. This is how it has always been (minus government intervention), and it is how it should be. People making $50,000 a year shouldn’t be living in a $400,000 house—It’s that simple. People need to live within their means, but the government doesn’t seem to grasp this and keeps pushing measures to modify home loans. We can try to modify people’s loans all day long, but if they can’t afford their homes, then they can’t afford their homes. According to the Wall Street Journal, over 40 percent of borrowers were at least 60 days past due eight months after their loan was modified. It seems to me that these loan modifications are just delaying the inevitable and costing banks and taxpayers more money.
Before the housing crisis can truly end, housing prices must come into balance with incomes. When this happens, the problem will solve itself. When buying a home starts to make more sense than renting, people will start buying again. It isn’t that hard to figure out. Spending taxpayer money to prop up housing is not only a waste, but an unethical perpetuation of the problem. It is completely unfair to renters as well as our youth. Unfortunately, those groups represent the minority, so their voice isn’t likely to be heard. If these measures are passed, expect to pay handsomely for it and to see another bubble burst a few years from now. At least this time no one should be able to use the excuse that they didn’t see it coming.