In each of the six months from December through May, the most recent month for which data is available, national homes prices set new highs. Home price growth has outpaced wage growth and inflation. So perhaps it is not too surprising that a new survey has found that more than half of homeowners expect home prices to decline in the not too distant future. Of 1,079 adults surveyed by ValueInsured, a provider of down payment protection, 58% agreed with the notion there will be a “housing bubble and price correction” in the next two years. That’s up from 46% last quarter. Meanwhile, 83% of respondents believe it’s a good time to sell.
Over the past five decades home price cycles have tended to last seven to ten years. The last up-cycle was an exception, running 17 years before home prices crashed spectacularly in 2006 and finally began a sustained rebound in 2012. “Historical precedence is now on the side of those who think a housing market correction is near,” says Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist at home search site Trulia. It is possible, he notes, that the new norm is closer to 17 years.
Being due for a correction does not necessarily equal a bubble. Corrections “can occur for many reasons that are unrelated to bubbles, such as a slowdown in macroeconomic activity, consumer demand, etc,” explains McLaughlin. “An asset bubble has a very specific meaning: when consumers and/or investors are willing to pay more for an asset just because others are doing it or because they think prices will increase indefinitely.” Think tulips, Beanie Babies and, yes, housing in the previous decade.
“A defining factor in a housing market bubble is home price growth that is unsustainable or unsupported. A decade ago, the housing market was fueled by exotic mortgages and lax underwriting that allowed people to take on more debt than they could afford.What we have today is actually a very conservative and equity-driven market. We are seeing buyers in the hottest housing markets making sizable down payments, if not all-cash offers. Thus, unlike in the subprime boom, there’s equity that is supporting price growth along with good local economic drivers like job growth.“
In the most recent release of the monthly S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, Managing Director David Blitzer declared that housing was not in bubble territory, because the amount prices have increased varies from city to city. During the bubble, price growth was nearly universal. Plus, the number of homes sold today is 20% below the pre-crash peak. That does not mean the housing market is without flaws. Mortgages are hard to get without stellar credit. Fewer homes are selling annually. And there’s just a four-month supply of homes available for sale–not nearly enough to meet growing demand. But all of that is supporting price growth.
“The biggest contributor to the housing boom and bust last time was speculation. People got in expecting that prices would never fall and builders built expecting that prices would never fall. And everyone turned out to be wrong. The skepticism we are seeing from homeowners this time suggests that attitude that home prices can never come down is definitely not present. So we are getting much more fundamental demand from natural growth in households and builders are building to meet that actual growth in households. It is a much more sustainable situation.”
In their survey ValueInsured found that Millennials, which they define as adults 34 and under and are the main drivers of new demand, are particularly wary of making a bad investment. This is in part because many are uncertain they can remain in a home long enough for their investment to pay off. (Expert typically recommend staying in a home for seven years or more to limit exposure to price volatility.)
“I just caution people against looking at their house as an investment versus as a place to live,” says Svenja Gudell, chief economist at Zillow. “If you have a ton of money and you’re wondering: ‘should I park it in a bunch of homes or should I invest in other ways?’ Our research has proven the returns are higher investing otherwise. But you still have to live somewhere, so it still makes more sense to buy a house that to rent.”