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Housing has turned the corner of the worst downturn in more than 60 years, but the market is still grappling with high unemployment and sharply lower home prices, according to “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2010,” which was released by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University on June 14.
“The strength of job growth is now key to how quickly loan distress subsides and how fully markets recover,” the report says.
“If history is a guide, what happens with jobs will matter the most to the strength of the housing rebound,” says Eric Belsky, executive director of the Joint Center. “Right now, economists expect the unemployment rate to stay high, but if employment growth surprises on the upside or downside, housing numbers could too.”
First-time home buyers drove the improvements that began to be seen by the middle of last year, triggered by improved affordability and the first-time home buyer tax credit, and they were responsible for all of the gains in existing home sales in 2009, the study says.
“As a result of lower home prices and interest rates, mortgage payments on a median-priced home (assuming a 90% loan-to-value ratio) dropped below 20% of median household income — the lowest level on record dating back to 1971,” according to the center.
The report notes that in April there were 7.8 million fewer jobs than in December 2007, and “unfortunately, most economists predict that the unemployment rate will remain elevated as discouraged workers reenter the labor force amid slow gains in jobs.”
The overhang of vacant units for rent, for sale or held off the market is another “serious concern,” the report says.
“Despite production cuts of more than 70% since 2005, the overall vacancy rate hit a record in 2009. In addition, many current owners are effectively trapped in homes that are worth less than the amount owed on their mortgages. If these distressed owners want or need to sell, their only choices are to walk away from their homes or write a check at the closing table. This will inhibit a recovery in repeat home sales.”
Citing statistics from First American CoreLogic, the center says that falling home prices left 11.2 million home owners underwater on their loans — with no home equity and unable to tap traditional markets — as of the end of the first quarter of 2010. Housing was adding significantly less to the pocketbooks of consumers, as well, with Freddie Mac reporting that total real home equity cashed out at refinancing dropped 25% in 2009 and stood below $80 billion for the first time since 2000.
The housing market will also have to weather the expiration of the home buyer tax credit, but the report suggests that the improving labor market may enable housing to avoid a dip similar to what occurred when the first round of credits expired in the fall of 2009.
Declining Incomes and Wealth
At the outset of the recovery, home builders are also having to contend with a noticeable decline in the income and household wealth of their prospective buyers.
“After at least three decades of progress, real median household income will almost certainly end the 2000s lower than they started,” the study says. “At last measure, the median for all households was $49,800 in 2008, down from $52,400 in 2000. Even at their last cyclical peak in 2007, real median incomes were 1.2% below 2000 levels.”
The household wealth of households slid from $503,500 to $486,600 over the decade, according to Harvard.
“While growth in stock wealth has already started to pick up, housing wealth will take a slower path to recovery. Indeed, despite some painful foreclosure-driven deleveraging, mortgage debt has never been higher relative to home equity. After an $8.2 trillion plunge in housing wealth since the end of 2005, mortgage debt entered 2010 at 163% of home equity.”
Even outside the cyclical decline in income and wealth, the financial wherewithal of prospective buyers will be a concern for the housing market in the period ahead as it becomes increasingly diverse.
“At last measure in 2007, minorities accounted for fully 35% of first-time home buyers and 20% of repeat buyers even in the middle of the housing bust. The immigrant share of first-time buyers was 19% and of repeat buyers 12%.”
The report says that “minority households have lower median incomes than white households. For example, the median income for 35-44 year-old minority-headed households was $45,000 in 2008, compared with $72,900 for whites.”
The Return of Household Growth
The most optimistic news from this year’s report comes from a longer-range assessment of household growth.
While there has been much discussion of the impact of the recession on household growth, “it is difficult to judge how big those effects have actually been,” according to the center. The cumulative slowdown over the past four years appears to range from 1.0 million to 2.8 million.
“The reality could, however, be even worse because household growth estimates depend heavily on net immigration, which is particularly difficult to assess in and around an economic recession.”
The report observes that it is also hard to sort out how much of the slowdown in household formations has been due to reduced immigration and how much to lower household formation rates caused by doubling up.
The Current Population Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau shows foreign-born households under the age of 35 declining by 338,400 from March 2007 to March 2009, compared to a drop of only 2,100 native-born households of the same age.
“On the other hand, the survey also indicates that headship rates among young adults as a whole declined in the late 2000s, consistent with the expected effects of soaring unemployment within that age group. At the same time, the survey also shows some drop-off in headship rates in older age groups,” the report says.
“In any case, headship rates may not remain depressed for long given dramatic improvements in affordability for first-time buyers who have jobs, softening rents due to high rental vacancies and the expectation that household growth will return to long-term trend levels when employment growth quickens.
“But assuming headship rates remain at their slightly lower 2008 levels and that net immigration recovers to its 2000-2005 pace, household growth will average about 1.48 million annually in 2010 to 2020. Even if immigration falls to half the Census Bureau’s currently projected rate, household growth will still average about 1.25 million annually.
“This low-end estimate puts household growth in the next 10 years on par with the pace in 1995 to 2005, and should support average annual housing completions and manufactured home placements of well over 1.7 million units. The higher-end estimate would likely support production exceeding 1.9 million units per year on average over the coming decade.”
The study also indicates that builders should be on the lookout for retiring baby boomers, the oldest of whom are just turning 64, with millions soon to follow.
“Despite their losses in wealth caused by the correction in home and stock prices, the baby boomers will drive demand for senior housing suited to active lifestyles as well as for assisted living facilities,” the report says.
NAHB and the National Housing Endowment were among the organizations providing funding for the report.