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A construction worker carries lumber while working on new homes in San Mateo, Calif., in March. Homebuilding is at its highest level in nearly four years.
A construction worker carries lumber while working on new homes in San Mateo, Calif., in March. Homebuilding is at its highest level in nearly four years. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Housing, the sector that led us into the recession, now looks to be one of the brighter spots in the economy. Homebuilding is at its highest level in nearly four years. More homes are selling, and at higher prices.
The question, of course, is whether this is a solid enough foundation to sustain a full housing recovery.
Lawrence Yun, the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, says housing woes are largely behind us.
"It's been a harsh downturn, but the downturn is over," he says. "Now we're beginning to turn the corner. [The] question is: How fast will we be turning that corner?"
He points to increased home sales, rising rents and low interest rates among several reasons why he's certain the housing market is pointing in the right direction. And low inventories mean that price increases "will surely be sustainable," he says.
Yun says it may be counterintuitive, but in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix and southern California, the number of homes for sale is at a fraction of where it should be in a normal market, and the competition among buyers is fierce.
And, he says, this housing recovery isn't just regional. Across the country, demand for homes is driven by investors as well as millions of families who put off buying a home in recent years until the market started to improve.
"It's a self-reinforcing process, where the increase in housing market activity begins to boost consumer confidence about homebuying," Yun says.
Glenn Kelman, the CEO of online brokerage Redfin, says he shares in some of that confidence.
"We've been a bear, and now we're a bull," he says.
To be more accurate, he says his company is a small bull — a calf, maybe — on the market. That is in spite of the fact that some people believe there's a vast backlog of foreclosed homes that are about to hit the market. Kelman's not buying it.
"Every conspiracy theorist in real estate believes that there's a huge chunk of inventory that the banks have just been holding back, waiting for our hopes to rise so that they can dash them again, and I just don't believe it," he says.
Kelman acknowledges there are still plenty of problems with the market. Namely, about half of Americans can't qualify for a mortgage.
"I don't think anyone believes we're out of the woods yet, but I do think that there's very little chance that the market is going to lose 10 percent, 20 percent and drag us back into the abyss," Kelman says.
Gary Shilling, a financial analyst and well-known bear on housing, says the conventional wisdom — that the housing market is stable — is riddled with folly.
"You want to believe, yeah, yeah. Build it they will come," he says with a laugh.
Shilling says he doesn't buy the idea that millions of people have steady enough income to afford buying homes.
"Household formation is very much determined by economic circumstances," he says. "And right now they're very negative."
In other words, just because somebody wants to move out doesn't mean that they can.
"They've got to have the ability, they've got to have the motivation, they've got to have the cash, the job, all these other factors," Shilling says.
Shilling is among analysts who believe there is a big inventory of foreclosed and delinquent homes lurking in the shadows.
In fact, last week RealtyTrac said that during the first half of this year, foreclosure activity was up in more than half of major markets. Shilling argues that when those properties hit the market, that will drive down home prices at least another 20 percent.
"Probably in the next few quarters, we're going to see that the foreclosures pick up and that start to be dumped on the market and it'll be a very different story," he says.
He says there were similar blips of good data two years ago. Skepticism, he says, pays off.