The housing market has been both an exciting and frightening whirlwind for the past few years, depending on your role and financial stake in the matter. As prices have continued to fall -- amidst historically low mortgage rates -- a lot of potential first-time homebuyers are wondering if it’s a good time to jump into the market. According to economists, there are two sides to consider.
Some would say the timing is just right. Homes are more affordable than they have been in a long time and in many cases your mortgage payment could be less than a monthly rent check. It may take a few more years for the housing market to get completely back to normal, and that means there are plenty of opportunities to capitalize on today, according to Eric Lascelles, chief economist at money-management firm RBC Global Asset Management Inc.
“This is still a remarkable time to be a first-time home buyer,” said Lascelles. “Affordability is the best it has been in 30 years.”
The combination of a 34% drop in home prices from the pre-recession peak in 2006 and a record-low 4% average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage makes it a better time than ever to buy, said Lascelles. Affordability is based on how much monthly income a homebuyer would pay toward a mortgage and whether it’s less than what renting would cost. Home prices are now about one-third cheaper than the historical norm, according to Lascelles, and buying is now cheaper than renting in 98 out of 100 major American markets, according to the real-estate website Trulia. Based on those measures, Lascelles argues it’s a perfect time to buy.
Even though home prices could still fall, getting a house for one-third of its fair value is an incredible deal. If you wait, you risk a rise in interest rates. So if you have a steady job and can get approved for a mortgage, then Lascelles says the opportunity has never been better.
But not everyone agrees that it’s a great time to buy, even with prices as low as they are.
“Don't buy your first house now unless you're willing to lose 20% of its market value in the next several years,” said A. Gary Shilling, president of A. Gary Shilling & Co., an economic consulting firm in Springfield, New Jersey.
Shilling says the problem is the surplus of housing available. He says there is currently an excess of two million housing units in the U.S., and the four years it would take to work off that excess inventory is plenty of time for prices to drop even further. Various factors related to the housing boom, like low interest rates and loose lending standards, helped lead to foreclosures and ultimately to this excess inventory, according to Shilling. Home ownership jumped to 69.3% in 2004, up from the norm of 64%. Before the housing market collapsed, around 1.5 million new homes were being built annually. But that number recently dropped to 568,000 and homeownership has dropped to 66%, as foreclosures continue to devastate so many American families.
“Now that mortgage servicers have reached a $25 billion settlement with Washington and state attorneys general, foreclosures are likely to roar back,” Shilling said. “That likely will trigger the additional price decline, since the National Association of Realtors says foreclosed houses sell at a 19% discount to other listings, and sizable sales of real estate owned by lenders drag down the entire market.”
So even though you can get a great deal on a house compared to its fair value, Shilling says it’s not a deal if prices drop even further.
There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding to become a first-time homebuyer. Understanding the financial responsibilities associated with homeownership is something a lot of people in this country unfortunately have overlooked.
HLN Money Expert Clark Howard says capitalizing on a real estate deal is a great opportunity for first-time homebuyers, but you have to be ready. If you aren’t prepared for homeownership and you jump in anyway, you could end up in a pretty bad situation. But Clark says, “If your situation fits, don’t miss the opportunity!”