Sunday, February 21, 2016
Is the New Housing Bubble About to Burst?
The most critical aspect of any housing market is affordability. Even in the wealthiest enclaves, buyers must still be able to afford their properties.
Even in the case of all-cash sales, in which buyers need not seek a mortgage from a bank, the buyer must be able to afford the all-in, up-front cost of the home purchase (all-cash sales were 24 percent of transactions in December, down from 27 percent in November).
The law of supply and demand is always at work. A limited supply of homes will drive up prices if it cannot meet existing demand.
Total housing inventory at the end of December dropped 12.3 percent to 1.79 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 3.8 percent lower than a year ago (1.86 million), reports the National Association of Realtors.
That brings us to the vital issue of cost.
The median sales price of a new home in the US was $288,900 in December 2015, which was down slightly from the all-time high sales price of $307,600 set in September, according to government data.
The average price of a new home in December was even higher: $346,400.
All things being equal, existing homes tend to have a lower cost than new homes, which brings down both median and average prices.
The median home price for all housing types (both new and existing) in December was $224,100, up 7.6 percent from December 2014 ($208,200). That price increase marked the 46th consecutive month of year-over-year gains, according to the National Association of Realtors.
That sort of upward trend seems quite unsustainable, and it’s reasonable to wonder if we’re in the midst of a new housing bubble.
Historically, home prices have appreciated nationally at an average annual rate between 3 and 5 percent, according to Zillow, though different metro areas can appreciate at markedly different rates than the national average.
The San Francisco Bay area, for example, has far exceeded that average, while prices in other regions have been below the average.
This historical average is important to consider as we look for signs of another housing bubble.
What's most worrisome is that the current increase in home prices far exceeds the general rate of inflation, which was just 0.7 percent through the 12 months ended in December 2015, the most recent figure published by the government.
Again, home prices surged 7.6 percent in that same period.
More important than home prices is affordability. Can people pay their mortgages with their current incomes?
In order to consider affordability, we must take into account median household income.
The Census Bureau estimated that real median household income was $53,657 in 2014 (the latest available figure), which was down from $54,462 in 2013, and well below the peak of around $57,000 in 1999.
Consider for a moment that the median price of a new home in December 1999 was $222,600, while median household income was around $57,000.
Fast forward to December 2015, and the median price of a new home had leapt all the way to $288,900, while median household income had slid backward to $53,657.
In short, home prices have surged higher even though incomes have gone in reverse.
New home prices are now 5.4 times household income. Yet, home prices have a long term average of 3.3 times household income, according to the Economist.
If we take all homes into consideration, both new and existing, the median sales price in December was, again, $224,100, which is 4.2 times median household income. That is still well above the long term average.
If this doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it simply doesn’t make any sense at all.
When you dig deeper into the income numbers, it makes you wonder how most Americans afford houses at all.
A new report by the Social Security Administration has some rather stunning findings.
In 2014, 38% of all American workers made less than $20,000; 51% made less than $30,000; 63% made less than $40,000; and 72% made less than $50,000.
This is likely why there are fewer homeowners now than at any time in the last two decades.
The US homeownership rate fell to 63.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015, the lowest level since early 1995. First-time buyers have been kept out of the market by strict lending standards and low wages.
A National Association of Realtors survey released in late 2015 revealed that the annual share of first-time buyers was at its lowest level in nearly three decades, falling to just 32 percent. The long–term historical average is nearly 40 percent.
The trouble is that the US population has grown significantly over the last two decades, rising from 266.3 million people in 1995 to more than 320 million in 2015.
The addition of 54 million new residents should have resulted in a massive increase in the homeownership rate. Yet, the opposite is true. There are just more renters now. Houses are simply unaffordable for millions upon millions of Americans.
All of this leads me to believe that we are indeed in the midst of yet another real estate bubble, and the one truism of bubbles is that all of them eventually burst — every single one of them.
Remember, home prices are much higher now than they were when the last real estate bubble began collapsing in 2007. Yes, the problem is even worse today!
The median home price reached an all-time high of $236,300 last June, and then began falling. It may be the first sign that the next housing collapse has already begun.
This is what the Fed’s zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) has given us. The central bankers wanted to re-inflate the housing bubble, and it worked. But a housing bubble is what caused all of our economic and financial troubles the last time.
The numbers are clear — they don’t lie. Homes are currently overpriced and clearly unaffordable for huge numbers of Americans. It’s a simple matter of prices exceeding incomes once again, and we saw how that story played out less than a decade ago.
My fear is that we are facing the same scenario all over again.