The Future for Home Prices
Over the past few years, Americans have had a brutal lesson in the risks of real estate. House prices have crashed more than 35% in some parts of the country, millions of people are losing their homes to foreclosure, and banks are failing.
The takeaway? Many Americans still see real estate as their best shot at wealth. In survey after survey, people expect prices to bounce back — in some cases, as soon as six months from now.
The Journal Report
Those hoping for a quick rebound are likely to be disappointed. Economists and other pros generally say home prices won’t bottom out before the second half of 2009, and some don’t see a bottom until 2011 or 2012. Even when they stop falling, prices may scrape along the bottom of the rut for years.
Down the Road
And longer term? Over the next 10 to 20 years, housing economists expect prices will rise again — but, on average, probably not nearly as much as they’ve averaged over the past decade. That isn’t to say that some places won’t experience booms (and busts). But, the experts say, you should generally expect house prices to rise just a bit more than inflation and roughly in line with household income.
Karl Case, an economics professor at Wellesley College whose name adorns the S&P Case-Shiller home-price indexes, has studied U.S. house prices going back to the 1890s. Over the long run, he says, home prices tend to increase on average at an inflation-adjusted rate of 2.5% to 3% a year, about the same as per capita income. He thinks that long-run pattern is likely to continue, despite the recent choppiness.
Other experts make similarly modest predictions. William Wheaton, a professor of economics and real estate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he expects house prices to increase at a rate roughly one percentage point higher than inflation over the long term. Celia Chen, director of housing economics at Moody’s Economy.com, a research firm, expects house prices to increase an average of around 4% a year over the next couple of decades.
Some experts say it’s a bad idea to count on your home rising in value at all. People should think of their own homes mainly as places to live, not as investments, advises Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the Fisher Center for Real Estate at the University of California, Berkeley. Sure, home mortgages provide tax benefits, and most homes appreciate in value over the long run, he says, but there is always risk.
For all of those forecasts, many Americans are undaunted. Consider three surveys, all from October.
In a poll of 2,000 adults, real-estate-data provider Zillow.com found that 61% believed the value of their home would either remain level or rise over the next six months. Another survey of more than 1,000 homeowners, sponsored by real-estate-services firm Realogy Corp., found that 91% thought that owning a home was the best long-term investment they could make. And an online survey of 5,000 people commissioned by Citigroup found that just 32% believed it was a good time to invest in stocks — but 51% said it was a good time to buy a home.
Real Time Economics
[Your Money Matters]
The S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index showed accelerating price declines in September. See a sortable chart of home prices, by metro area.
“I just believe in real estate,” says Jason Schram, a lawyer in Chicago who has bought two rental properties this year at what he considers fire-sale prices. “I’ve seen over and over people I know build wealth through rental real estate, and that’s the path I intend taking, even though it’s a bit bumpy at the moment.”
So, as homeowners and buyers look ahead, what factors will determine whether their homes are really likely to rise in value, rather than just in their dreams? What are some of the bullish signs — and some of the bearish ones?
In the long term, house prices are driven by fundamentals that are hard to predict: immigration, birth rates, the size and nature of households, and incomes. The trick is to figure out where job and income growth will be strongest and where immigrants and others will want to live.
William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, says young people and immigrants are likely to flow to Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia, Nevada, Arizona and some of the more affordable interior parts of California.
These areas generally have lower housing costs than the Pacific Coast or Northeast and job growth from modern industries and leisure businesses, he says. Areas with little immigration and low growth or falling populations are likely to include Michigan, Ohio, the Dakotas, Iowa, western Pennsylvania and upstate New York, Mr. Frey says.
Newland Communities LLC, a San Diego-based planner and developer of neighborhoods, employs a full-time researcher to study long-term housing demand and ranks metro areas in terms of their growth prospects. Among those near the top of Newland’s hit parade are Washington, D.C., Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Las Vegas, says Robert McLeod, the developer’s chief executive.
All of them, Newland believes, will keep growing because they have well-diversified regional economies and other attractions, including mild climates. With the exception of Washington, they all have fairly affordable housing costs. Washington has a highly educated work force, high incomes, a stable source of government-related jobs and rapidly expanding technology firms, Newland says.
“The older industrial cities are going to suffer” from shrinking employment and forbidding weather, says Mr. Rosen of the University of California. Some Sun Belt cities, including Atlanta, also could languish if traffic jams and sprawl ruin their charms, he says.
Among metro areas that Mr. Rosen expects to do well in the long run are Albuquerque, N.M.; Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Denver and Colorado Springs, Colo. He says those places generally offer “urban vitality” and “easy access to outdoor activities” combined with affordable housing and good job-growth prospects from modern industries, such as biotechnology.
Still, just looking at population trends isn’t enough. Prices in the crowded coastal areas tend to be more volatile, rising and then falling much faster during booms and busts than do inland areas, Mr. Case notes. Shortages of land and building restrictions make it hard for builders to respond quickly when demand for housing rises in coveted neighborhoods near the coasts; further inland, it’s usually much easier to find vacant homes or land, and so sudden movements in prices are less likely.
For instance, despite rapid growth, home prices in Texas cities have tended to climb only gradually. Those cities typically have plenty of room to sprawl, and Texas regulates land use less strictly than many other states. Supply swells to meet demand.
[Your Money Matters] Stephen Webster / Wonderful Machine
The Wonder Years
What’s more, no one can assess the outlook for housing without considering the effects of 78 million aging baby boomers. For instance, some housing experts believe the boomers will be much less likely than their parents to settle for sun and golf in their retirement; they may prefer urban settings with lots of cultural life or to live nearer friends and families. That could mean higher demand — and increased prices — for housing in urban neighborhoods.
Most of this is just guesswork, though. “A lot of people have theories about the baby boomers,” says Mr. Frey, the Brookings demographer, but boomers always have tended to confound expectations.
Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at the University of Southern California, warns that the retirement of boomers over the next two decades is likely to depress house prices in many areas. As boomers relocate to retirement homes and cemeteries, there will be a lot more sellers than buyers in parts of the country, he says.
“It’s going to really mess up the housing market,” says Mr. Myers. He predicts that this “generational correction” will be larger and longer-lasting than the current slump.
To get a sense of the effects of aging boomers, Mr. Myers looks at the number of Americans 65 and over per 1,000 working-age people. He sees that number soaring to 318 in the year 2020 and 411 in 2030 from 238 in 2000.
Many people over 65 buy homes, of course, but as they get older they become more likely to sell than buy. People aged 75 to 79 are more than three times as likely to be sellers than buyers, Mr. Myers says.
In some areas, younger people will be happy to buy (and probably renovate) those boomer nests. The problem, Mr. Myers says, will be in places where lots of older people are selling and few young people are settling down. He says the effects will be strongest in the “coldest, most congested and most expensive states rather than the high-growth states of the South or West.” Among the states where Mr. Myers sees downward pressure on prices within the next decade: Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.
Of course, applying demographic trends to house-price forecasts can be hazardous. Economists N. Gregory Mankiw and David Weil predicted in a paper in 1989 that demographic trends would lead to a “substantial” fall in real, or inflation-adjusted, home prices over the next two decades “if the historical relation between housing demand and housing prices continues.” They reasoned that baby boomers were coming to the end of their prime house-buying years and that the smaller baby-bust generation would bring lower demand for housing.
That warning proved, at a minimum, premature. Despite the recent drop, the average U.S. home price is up about 35% in real terms since the end of 1989, according to the Ofheo index. Messrs. Mankiw and Weil both declined to comment.
Few people who invest in housing have time to follow these academic debates. For nearly four decades, Rich Sommer and his wife, Carolyn, have been investing in rental properties in and near Stevens Point, Wis. Mr. Sommer describes real estate as a good way “to get rich slowly.” He and his wife, both former schoolteachers, gradually have built their net worth from zero to around $2.5 million through their rental properties. They have dealt with countless plumbing emergencies, evicted deadbeats and even once had to clean up after a suicide in one of their properties.
Still, he hasn’t been hit very hard by the real-estate crash, in part because the Midwest is much less vulnerable to booms and busts than coastal areas. When asked what he would do if someone handed him $1 million today, Mr. Sommer doesn’t hesitate: He would put it into real estate.
By JAMES R. HAGERTY
—Mr. Hagerty is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Pittsburgh.
Write to James R. Hagerty at firstname.lastname@example.org