What It Will Take to Fix the Housing Market

Sooner or later, predictions of a housing recovery will turn out to be right.

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If you're a squeamish homeowner, you probably can't bear to follow the housing news anymore. Home prices have fallen by more than 30 percent over the last five years, yet the pain still isn't over: After a respite when it looked like the bust was ending, price declines have been accelerating once again. Sales are abysmal, despite the lowest interest rates in a generation. The inventory of foreclosures and other fire-sale homes is going up, not down, which will put further downward pressure on prices for much of 2011. Housing usually rebounds after a recession, giving the recovery legs. But the housing market is so bad that some analysts worry it could drag the whole economy back down into a dreaded double-dip recession.

[See 10 industries that will hire the most in 2011.]

Economists have continually misread the housing market over the last five years, as it metastasized from a modest correction into a once-a-century debacle. Part of the problem now is the uncertainty caused by rising gas prices, which tend to unnerve consumers far more than the added cost warrants, and the nationwide slowdown in foreclosures due to legal questions over fishy bank practices. There's also a lot of disquiet over unrest in the Middle East, ongoing sovereign debt problems in Europe, and Washington's own mushrooming debt problems. It doesn't help that there's talk of ending some housing subsidies, making it harder to qualify for a 30-year mortgage and even slashing the mortgage-interest deduction that makes homeownership cheaper for millions of middle-class families.

Still, the recovery has absorbed a couple of global shocks, and apparently continues apace. The job market is improving, shoppers are more willing to spend, and corporate profits remain strong. Those are all preconditions for a housing rebound, which is inevitable as long as the nation's population continues to expand and the economy keeps growing. The only question—and it's a big one—is when. Here are six missing pieces that still need to fall into place for a housing rebound to take root:

More job gains. The employment picture has been improving for over a year, with the economy adding nearly 1.3 million jobs since the low point in February 2010. That's a start, but the pace of job growth needs to be about twice that to generate a self-sustaining recovery in which consumers spend more because they're confident about their jobs, and companies hire more because they need the extra workers to meet growing demand. And we're not quite at that point yet. While private-sector firms have been hiring, state and local governments have been slashing jobs, slowing overall job gains. That's likely to continue. And the twin shocks of Middle East unrest and the damage from the Japanese earthquake have added fresh doubts about the sustainability of a global recovery. So it will still take a major ramp-up in private hiring to make the recovery look lasting.

[See 10 industries that will shed the most jobs in 2011.]

The unemployment rate has been a key indicator of the economy's health, but even that has become a bit suspect. Since last November, the unemployment rate has dropped sharply, from 9.8 percent to 8.9 percent. That seemingly reflects a dramatic improvement in the job market. But that has happened as the number of people looking for jobs has fallen, too. So in effect, America's labor force is shrinking at a time when it ought to be growing. Meanwhile, the economy is still down about 7 million jobs from peak levels before the recession, which has hollowed out the pool of potential home buyers. Some of those people need to get back to work before the demand for housing improves.

Outlook: Moody's Analytics predicts that the pace of job creation by the end of 2011 will be at least 2.5 million new jobs per year, more than twice the current rate. If that holds, it will boost confidence and bring many needed home buyers back into the market.

Fewer foreclosures. It's impossible to hold the line on retail prices when distressed merchandise keeps hitting the market, and that's been the problem with an endless stream of foreclosures in hard-hit states like California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Michigan, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida. As foreclosed homes get repossessed and resold, they drag down the prices of most other homes, which perpetuates the vicious cycle of holdout sellers who can't afford to take a loss and reluctant buyers who don't want to commit to purchase until they're sure prices are nearly done falling.

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Outlook: The number of delinquent mortgages has been declining, which means foreclosure rates should slow, as long as the job market continues to improve and the economy doesn't slide back into recession. But there's an enormous inventory of foreclosed or soon-to-be-foreclosed homes that will depress prices in many markets for months or years. The good news is that 15 to 20 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, have modest foreclosure rates and are better-poised for a housing recovery. It will also help once the state regulators who are dickering with banks over "robosigners" and other fishy foreclosure practices reach some kind of global settlement that will allow normal foreclosures to proceed. News reports suggest a settlement could come within weeks, which would ease delays that have dragged out the whole foreclosure fiasco.

A stable homeownership rate. Until the last decade, the homeownership rate was mostly steady at around 64 percent. Then it rose to a peak of 69 percent in 2004, which was obviously too high. As people who can't afford homes sell or default, the homeownership rate has been drifting back down, and it's now around 67 percent. It probably needs to fall back to the historical average of 64 percent or so for the housing market to return to normal.

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Outlook: At the current pace, homeownership rates could hit 64 percent again in 2012 or 2013, but there's a risk they'll overshoot and go lower than that—which would stretch the huge gap that already exists between the supply of homes and demand. The good news is that housing affordability is the best it's been in more than 40 years, and banks are starting to ease up on loans, which could lure buyers back sooner.

Clarity from Washington. Buying a home is a complicated ordeal to start with, and now, home buyers also need to worry about battles in Washington over tax policy, housing subsidies, and the entire future of housing finance. Some budget hawks want to reduce the mortgage-interest deduction, to help cut Washington's huge deficits, which would probably affect purchases of more expensive homes the most. Other proposed changes could effectively require higher down payments and shorter-term mortgages, which would shrink the pool of eligible buyers. And something needs to be done about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the wrecked housing agencies that are now completely run by Washington, at a huge loss to taxpayers. But if changes are too abrupt, it could cause another ruinous pullback in housing.

[See how to tell when America's debt crisis gets serious.]

Outlook: For all the intense talk in Washington, the biggest issues, such as what to do about Fannie and Freddie, probably won't be addressed until after the 2012 presidential election. And if there ever is a cut in the mortgage-interest deduction, it will probably be phased in slowly, to minimize voter revolt. The biggest risk for buyers today isn't an abrupt change in housing policy. It's not leaving enough margin for error in case there's an unexpected pullback in the future. That's one more reason to make conservative decisions and leave a lot of cushion in case something goes wrong.

Rising rents. Fewer homeowners means there are more renters, which drive the demand for apartments up, along with rents. That's a hardship for renters, since it cuts into their disposable income. But it also gives them a good reason to consider buying. With the affordability of homes at record levels, that should eventually turn some renters into buyers, raising demand for homes and helping stabilize prices.

Outlook: Rents have already started going up, and research firm REIS predicts a healthy 3.4 percent rise in rents, on average, in 2011. In a few cities, rents could rise by nearly 10 percent. And in most cities, rents will outpace inflation and wage growth. That won't turn renters into buyers overnight, since loans are still hard to get and a lot of people can't come up with money for a down payment. But it will help restore the normal equilibrium between the rental and purchase markets, and increasingly motivate renters to look into buying.

[See where rents are rising the most, and least.]

Some courageous buyers. The conventional wisdom at the moment is that the housing bust still has a ways to go, which means it would be foolish to buy until it's clear that prices have stopped falling. But smart money rarely follows conventional wisdom, and there are good reasons to buy, even now. Getting a good deal on a home is a function of two things: price and interest rates. Prices may fall a bit further, but it's very likely that interest rates will go up over the next several months, as the global recovery picks up steam and investors begin to anticipate the end of the Federal Reserve's super-stimulative policies. So in terms of mortgage rates at least, the bottom may be now.

Outlook. "Housing markets across the country are increasingly a good buy," economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics said in a recent conference call. "They're undervalued." In fact, he predicts that the best buys may be in the most distressed areas, where prices have fallen the most. It might take guts to act on that, and muster a down payment while other buyers are still on the sidelines. But sooner or later, predictions of a housing recovery will turn out to be right.

Twitter: @rickjnewman