Saturday, April 11, 2009

When Will Housing Market Bottom?

The Pending Home Sales Index, a forward-looking indicator based on contracts signed in January, fell 7.7 percent to 80.4 from a downwardly revised reading of 87.1 in December, and is 6.4 percent below January 2008. The index is at the lowest level since tracking began in 2001, when the index value was set at 100.

Since it is a leading indicator of future activity, what does this mean for reaching a housing bottom? Pending sales track escrows that close in 30-60 days. The West was the only region that showed increased activity, with it seasonally adjusted pending index up 2.4 percent in a month and 13.5 percent over last January. The West includes states like California, Nevada and Arizona that have seen the greatest price declines.

Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, said the downturn in the economy also weighed heavily on the data. “Even with many serious potential home buyers on the sidelines waiting for passage of the stimulus bill, job losses and weak consumer confidence were a natural drag on home sales,” he said. “We expect similarly soft home sales in the near term, but buyers are expected to respond to much improved affordability conditions and from the $8,000 first-time buyer tax credit.”

NAR’s Housing Affordability Index rose 13.6 percentage points in January to 166.8, a new record high. The HAI, a broad index of affordability that tracks the ability of a household with median income to buy a median-priced existing home, shows that the relationship between home prices, mortgage interest rates and family income is the most favorable since tracking began in 1970.

The HAI indicates a median-income family, earning $59,800, could afford a home costing $283,400 in January with a 20 percent down payment, assuming 25 percent of gross income is devoted to mortgage principal and interest; affordability conditions for first-time buyers with the same income and small down payments are roughly 80 percent of that amount. A year ago, the typical first-time family could afford a home costing $263,300.

The just unveiled Housing and Affordability Sustainability Plan (HASP) should also stimulate mortgage volumes for distressed borrowers with loan amounts less than $729,750. Eligible borrowers have to show either that their homes are more than 80 percent encumbered, or loan payments—including taxes and insurance—are more than 38 percent of monthly gross income. Lenders can then either cut the interest rate as low as 2 percent, forgive principal, and if that doesn’t work, extend amortization period to 40 years.

Harlan Green © 2009

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