Home Prices: A little higher! A little higher!

I’m getting tired of hearing that home prices still need to fall further. You can be the most bullish guy in the whole world on housing and you’d still have to admit that statistically home prices have to keep falling.

Consider how the major home price indices, both the FHFA and Case-Shiller, use repeat sales to calculate home price changes. Basically they look for homes that have sold twice, and measure the price change between the two sales periods. So if a home sells to the Skywalker family in 2004 for $100,000 and then to the Organa-Solo family in 2007 for $115,000, we’d call that one data point indicating that homes rose by 15% over those three years. (Do we think that Amidala’s house was foreclosed on after she died? Or was there family money there?) Combine this with millions of other data points, and you can get some pretty solid estimates.

Now, I don’t know of any better way to measure home price changes. Certainly I don’t like using appraised values, especially in a market like this one. But the paired sales method is bound to lag reality in a market like this one.

Consider what we have in housing. Too many houses were built, and too many borrowers got funding that shouldn’t. The former means there is too large a supply of homes, and the later means that foreclosures are creating even more supply of homes!

We in the financial business are used to things moving fast, but the housing market doesn’t work like that. The foreclosure process is slow, and given the ever-changing world of government programs, I think many banks have been especially slow to initiate foreclosures. On top of that you have loan mods, a large percentage of which will re-default. For these reasons and others, I’m sure we will still be dealing with large numbers of foreclosures a year from now.

And remember that foreclosures aren’t going to be evenly distributed across the country. They will be focused in areas where the bubble was worst. In other words, areas where there was already too much supply from builders! Areas where the gap between supply and demand is widest.

Demand for housing is also quite inelastic. I already have a home. Lower prices in and of itself doesn’t incent me to buy another house, because I’d have to sell the one I have anyway. It isn’t like when the Gap needs to clear out excess sweater inventory. They can make everything half off and unload it all. America needs to do a half-off homes sale, but can’t actually get anyone to come to the mall to buy.

So it is inevitable that as actual transactions start to pick up, those transactions will show lower and lower prices, especially where foreclosures are high. Even when the housing situation stops getting worse, statistically, prices will keep falling. But we can’t get to a bottom unless transactions pick up (which they have), and inventories are cleared out. The fact that increased transactions largely represent increased foreclosures is neither here nor there. We know foreclosures are coming. Let’s get them out of the way.

Put all this together, and I’m watching stats like Existing Home Sales and NAHB confidence survey much more closely than today’s Case-Shiller Index. On that basis, its reasonable to see the decline in housing finally abating. But only a fool would say that prices are about to bottom.

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