Dr. Robert Shiller, one of the creators of the famed Case-Shiller Housing Index expresses his concerns about the formation of a new housing bubble in this interview with Fox Business Channel. At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Shiller points out just how much government policy is supporting the housing market through Fed policy, Fannie, Freddie, FHA and the tax code. In fact, he is surprised that despite so much support, the housing recovery is not stronger.
More importantly, he points out that when you take into account the record low mortgage rates that have driven the housing market, home price appreciation, in real terms, is more moderate than people think. Although he is not predicting that home prices will go down in the next year or so, he is concerned that as interest rates return to historical norms, it will have a dampening effect on both the housing market as a whole and home prices in particular.
The substantial run up in home prices caused by strong investor demand and a shortage of inventory may be nearing an end. With the double digit increases in home prices over the past year, fewer people are underwater with their existing homes and are starting to put them on the market. As this article in the LA Times points out, the recent price appreciation has also spurred homebuilders to increase their production. With this new inventory coming from both existing homeowners and new construction, combined with rising home mortgage rates off their historic lows, forecasters are predicting home prices will begin to stabilize and home price appreciation will moderate.
It is no longer a secret that much of the recent run up in housing prices is the result of institutional investors and private equity buying houses on a bulk basis. This has made it very difficult for traditional buyers to compete in the current market as the investors are buying with all cash forcing traditional buyers to scramble to compete when they are dependent on obtaining financing in a more conservative lending environment. In some cases this has led traditional buyers to feel so desperate at the prospect of being frozen out of the market that they offer significantly over list price just to win a bidding war.
It is important to remember that it was just this fear of being left behind that led to much of the irrational exuberance near the height of the last bubble. It is also worth remembering that investors want to foster this perception in the market because buyer sentiment is critical to home price appreciation, which is key to their investment strategy. As this recent New York Times article points out, while investor capital continues to say that it is in housing for the long-term, investors’ actions are showing the first signs of heading to the exits as they scale back their acquisitions and take money off the table in the form of IPO’s. It is worth remembering, a smart investor is not likely to tell you what they are doing until they have locked in their position so they can profit off your response.
As housing inventory continues to drop and sales continue to increase, we are beginning to see annual home price appreciation approach double digits in select markets. While it is exciting for those thinking of selling their homes to hear stories of new listings getting bid up over list price and being put into escrow within days of going on the market, we are reminded that this is not necessarily evidence of a sustained and healthy market recovery. As reported in Investors Business Daily on February 14, 2013, this may instead be a sign of another bubble forming within the larger housing market.
Buyers should beware that data showing signifcant year over year price increases may be indicative of substantial activity from investors and flippers.
Over the past 18 to 24 months, investors have been snapping up foreclosures at liquidation prices, fixing them up and then reselling them. However, most home price indexes don’t take into account the renovation costs. For example, if an investor purchases a home out of foreclosure 12 months ago for $150,000, invests $50,000 to fix it up and then sells it for $230,000. This will show up in the local market statistics as a 53% increase even though almost 2/3 of the appreciation was due to the improvements. It only takes a few foreclosure flips in a local market to skew the averages and make price appreciation in that market appear much higher than it truly is. As such, both buyers and sellers need to be aware of what data is behind the statistics before buying into significant price increases in a local market.