Don't Buy a House -- Yet
Mortgage interest rates are at a 50-year low. Last month, Congress extended a tax credit for home buyers through April. The economy is beginning to crawl out of what by some measures is the deepest recession since the 1930s. One survey already shows house prices beginning to rise.
So isn’t it time to buy a home? Kiplinger's certainly thinks so. But if I were in the market for a new home, I would wait. Housing prices typically don’t rebound quickly after a bust; instead, they level out and stay near that low base line for years.
I don’t see why this time should be different. True, prices seem as though they can’t drop further, and in some areas they even show signs of an upturn. But if prices won’t be taking off and might well resume their decline, you lose nothing but a little time by waiting to buy.
Of course, if you’re buying out of necessity -- because you’re moving to a new area and need to sell your old house and buy a new one, for example -- there’s no need to wait. But if you’re planning to buy your first house, if you want to move to a larger home, or especially if you’re buying a house for investment purposes, take your time.
The housing picture is complex -- and frightening. House prices have plunged 30%, on average, from their 2006 peak. But from 2000 to 2006, average prices nearly doubled. That means average house prices are still almost 40% higher than they were a decade ago. Forty percent is a healthy increase -- even in a robust economy.
And the economy, of course, is anything but robust. A fragile recovery seems to have begun last summer, but unemployment stands at 10.2% and is likely to rise even higher. It may not begin to fall substantially until late next year. Companies were quick to lay off workers, but they are being slow to hire.
As bad as the overall economy is, residential real estate is in much worse shape. About seven million households -- or 12.5% of all homeowners -- either are behind on their mortgages by 30 days or more or are in foreclosure. It’s hard to make the house payment if you’re unemployed. Millions of houses already stand empty -- victims of the subprime loans that sparked the Great Recession. Almost a quarter of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.
The history of busts. Nationally, housing prices haven’t declined from one calendar year to the next since accurate record keeping began in 1968. But in 2005, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. identified 21 regional housing busts since 1968. (The FDIC defined a bust as a decline of 15% over five years.)
Busts occurred in Texas when oil prices sank in the mid 1980s, in Southern California in the early 1990s amid defense-industry cutbacks, and in much of the Northeast corridor in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The 21 busts happened for varying reasons, and each unfolded differently. But they all shared one common trait: A nasty regional recession triggered each one.
Many (but not all) busts followed booms -- just as our national housing crash followed an unprecedented boom.
Most (but not all) of the regional busts tended to be painfully protracted affairs. Why? Because unless you’re forced out, most of us would rather stay in a house, pay the mortgage and hope for an eventual upturn rather than sell and realize our losses quickly. That means home prices don’t go down all at once; they tend to slide agonizingly slowly on infrequent sales.
True, the tax credits and low mortgage rates make buying a house tempting today. But if you buy into a slumping housing market, those incentives won’t add up to much. So while the worst of the real estate decline is surely behind us, the odds are strong that you’ll be able to buy later at the same price -- or a lower one.
Steven T. Goldberg is an investment adviser.