Housing Limbo: How Low Will Prices Go?

These days, many homeowners — and those looking to buy — are nervous. Home sales are also well below what they were during the peak of the housing market. With transportation, food costs and unemployment on the rise, making a decision about one of the largest purchases of your life — a house — is far from simple.

Unfortunately, there's no crystal ball to consult. But there are housing market experts. Here, some weigh in with factors to consider if you're thinking of buying.

How do I judge whether a house is overvalued?

You need to compare the market price to a theoretical price based on current economic and demographic trends, says Celia Chen, director of housing economics for Moody's Economy.com. "Nationally, prices are probably pretty overvalued — by about 10 percent," she says. At the peak of the housing market, when prices were rising rapidly, houses were 20 percent to 25 percent overvalued, she adds.

It's helpful to remember that housing prices don't behave like stocks — they're not going to change overnight, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. In other words, it's going to take time for overvalued houses to reach their true price.

Is the current economic slowdown making the housing market worse?

Yes. But it's important to note that nationwide housing prices started to decline after peaking in the summer of 2006 — before the rest of the U.S. economy began sputtering. Indeed, the bursting of the housing bubble was a major factor in the country's economic slowdown.

Now that the slowdown is in full swing, it's likely to further weigh down the housing market. Baker says that larger-than-average job losses in any region will "further weaken the housing market and prolong the downturn there."

Mike Shedlock, an investment adviser for SitkaPacific Capital Management and the blogger behind Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis, says he, too, is concerned about negative job reports: "More people out of work is going to put more pressure on people being able to pay their mortgages. So, that's going to lead to more foreclosures [and] more people walking away from their houses."

How do I know when the market has hit bottom?

"Nationally, we're very, very far from any bottom," says Baker, who believes the lowest point may arrive between the middle of 2009 and the start of 2010. He notes the nationwide glut of housing inventory, with the number of new and existing homes on the market at near-record levels and vacancy rates for ownership units at record highs.

Shedlock sees the bottom further out: 2012. He says foreclosures and inventory have to stop rising — and sales figures have to start increasing — before the market can reach its bottom. Even then, consumers shouldn't expect prices to shoot back up. Instead, he says, they'll remain "stagnant or stable," rising slowly in the decade after the bottom. "There's no rush for anyone to buy in now, or even when we see the signs of a housing bottom," he adds.

Moody's Celia Chen adds that housing remains "a better value now than it was a year ago." She predicts home prices will hit "absolute bottom" in the spring of 2009. Chen and other housing experts remain concerned that problems in the credit market as a whole will disrupt funding for home mortgages.

When will prices stop falling?

Inventory has to decline in order for prices to stop falling, says Chen. And right now, "there's too much supply versus demand" around the country, she says.

Some areas of the U.S. with "drastic" price declines include Las Vegas, Miami and San Diego, says Baker. Washington, D.C., has had larger price declines than Boston and New York City, two cities that Baker says have had "moderate" ones. Meanwhile, Baker says the latest housing data suggest that Cleveland and Detroit have "bottomed already."

Chen says certain metro areas in Florida remain "the most overvalued" in the nation, as are certain cities in Arizona and California. All three states have an oversupply of residential real estate. The South and Midwest, however, are regions where houses have remained affordable. And home prices in Columbus, Cincinnati and Indianapolis remain in line with where they should be, because these cities did not experience a "price bubble," she says.

Why is it important to compare the sales price of a house to rental prices before buying?

Comparing the sales price of a house to annual rent for a comparable property gives consumers a good yardstick to know whether it's a financially sound decision to become a homeowner.

One simple way to measure this is by calculating an own-to-rent ratio: Take the sale price of a house and divide it by the annual rent for a similar property or apartment. For example, take a house selling for $180,000, and a comparable house that rents for $1,000 a month ($12,000 annually). The own-versus-rent ratio is 15:1. This number indicates that you have a "balance" between ownership costs and rental costs, says Baker. (One can also do more complicated calculations that factor in additional home ownership costs, including property taxes.)

The ratio is not a magic number, but consumers may want to think twice before purchasing a house once that ratio creeps toward 18:1 or higher. During the peak of the housing bubble, there were ratios greater than 25:1, particularly in parts of California, Baker says. The 15-year average ratio in the U.S. is 11.4, according to Moody's Economy.com.

Nationwide, the ratio of housing prices to rents is "still above the historic average, which means that houses are expensive relative to apartments," says Chen.

How have consumer attitudes toward housing changed?

This market is forcing consumers to embrace the idea that a house is first and foremost a place to live, not a sure-thing investment. Not long ago, investing frenzy fueled the real estate market in "hot" cities like Miami, where investors snapped up condos as if they were going out of style.

"We've had boomers accumulating multiple housing or rental houses on the expectation that housing was a one-way ticket up. And that belief has been shattered," says Shedlock.

"If you're buying to live in a house, it's probably OK to purchase a house now," says Chen. "It's probably better if you wait a little longer."

Baker cautions in a research note that the "failure to recognize declining home prices can cause homeowners to be overly optimistic about their financial situation." As a result, we have an oversupply of houses on the market — and sellers who are "unwilling to drop their price to the market level," he says. The economy would improve, he says, if home sellers recognized their house just isn't worth what it used to be.

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