The S&P/Case-Shiller home price index of 20 cities revealed a 3.5 percent decline when compared with last year. Home prices are now at their lowest levels since November 2002. “Nine (housing markets) hit post-bubble lows,” said David Blitzer, spokesman for S&P, including Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Las Vegas and New York. “While there might be pieces of good news in this report, such as some improvement in many annual rates of return, February 2012 data confirm that, broadly-speaking, home prices continued to decline in the early months of the year,” Blitzer said.
The primary challenge continues to be foreclosures and other distressed property sales, according to Pat Newport, an analyst for IHS Global Insight. “We still have six million homeowners who are late on their payments,” he said. “We’ll still have lots of foreclosures, which will depress prices.” The good news is that some of the worst hit of the index’s 20 cities appear to be on the mend.
“Some (cities) which have declined considerably over the last five to six years now have begun to exhibit an uptick in home prices,” said Luis Vergara, a director with Mission Capital Advisors. Phoenix prices climbed 3.3 percent year-over-year. Miami recorded a gain of 0.8 percent over 2011. Even Las Vegas appears to be turning more positive, with home prices down only 8.5 percent, compared with a drop of nine percent in January.
The weakening may be due to the typical pattern of minimal interest during winter and greater interest in housing during the spring and summer. According to S&P, the unadjusted series is a more reliable indicator. House prices have fallen by more than one-third from their peak when the bubble burst. The glut of distressed properties on the market have slowed the market, as has the unemployment rate and tough credit conditions, which have offset the benefit of mortgage rates near or at record lows.
“The broad prospect for home prices is at best flat over the course of the year,” said Tom Porcelli, chief economist at RBC Capital Markets. “And as much as we have had progress with the supply and demand imbalance, it is still a challenge to gather any momentum here.”
According to the Commerce Department, March home sales fell 7.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted 328,000-unit annual rate. February’s sales pace was revised higher to 353,000 units, the best showing since November of 2009, from the previously reported 313,000 units. “The conditions in housing are still extremely weak, but there are some very subtle, less negative, signs suggesting stabilization there,” said Sean Incremona, economist at 4Cast Ltd.
Stabilizing home values are necessary for a sustained rebound in the housing industry by giving prospective buyers confidence. Near record-low borrowing costs and additional hiring may help the market absorb foreclosures, which may mean housing will no longer hinder economic growth. “Mortgage rates are very, very low, but you really need to see strong job growth,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James & Associates, Inc. “It’s still a very long way to go before we get a full recovery.”
The latest reports indicate that homebuilders are still trying to get back on their feet. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo sentiment index in April declined to a three-month low. This measure of anticipated sales for the next six months was not good news. Sales of existing houses fell in March for the third time in the last four months. Home purchases fell 2.6 percent to a 4.48 million annual rate from 4.6 million in February, according to the National Association of Realtors. The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage hit an all-time low of 3.87 percent in February and was little changed at 3.90 percent in the week ended April 19, according to Freddie Mac.
Writing for the Index Universe website, Cinthia Murphy says that “A number of encouraging economic indicators such as an improving job market and slowly growing demand for homes loom as factors that some hope should start to help underpin housing values, even if consumer confidence remains low for now. A clear recovery in housing is deemed crucial for a full-fledged economic recovery in the U.S. after the credit crisis of 2008 sent housing as well as the financial markets sharply lower. U.S. housing was at the center of that crisis, and much of the developed world remains mired in slow, debt-constrained, growth.
Michael Feder, CEO of Radar Logic, a real estate data and analytics firm, thinks Case-Shiller is underselling the momentum in the housing recovery. Radar Logic’s 25-city index, which tracks daily activity, is expected to show a month-over-month increase of nearly two percent during February, Feder said. The difference frequently comes when the market is turning, though Feder acknowledges that the mild winter may have created some demand. Another thing to look at is investment buyers coming into the market, which Feder believes could create something of a “mini-bubble” in prices given their willingness to pay premiums. News of that willingness spreads pretty quickly. While it can draw in some fence-sitters who have been waiting for a bottom, there is little evidence of that to date, Feder said.