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Let’s Get Real about Real Estate

Let’s Get Real about Real Estate

Once again, real estate market watchers have pounced on a shred of seemingly positive news to proclaim that the long sought “bottom??? is in sight. The routine is becoming extremely stale, but somehow the media never seems to tire of it. This time the “good??? news was that the percentage declines in national home prices (according to Case Shiller) in July where not as large as they were in June. Although the report contained many other negative data points, including increased inventories and a spike in foreclosure sales, it was the slowing declines that got spotlight. Talk about grasping at straws. The truth is that real estate has been grossly overvalued for years, and the adjustment process back to realistic pricing has only just begun. The problem is few among us seem to appreciate the magnitude of this adjustment and its implication for an economy dependent on inflated assets values.

By most accounts, the decade long housing boom began in 1996 and finally went poof in mid-2006. In January 1996, the Case Shiller 10 city composite home price index stood at 76. By June 2006 it had tripled to 226, by far the largest increase in U.S. history. Since then, the index has pulled back by 20% to 180. For those who believed that home prices could never retreat nationally, this 20% correction is more than enough. In reality, it’s just the down payment.

When real estate prices were expected to rise in perpetuity, the price of a house had two components, one representing shelter and the other investment. The shelter component was the actual utility and desirability of the house and the investment component was the expected future appreciation. My guess is that at the peak of the real estate mania, a $500,000 house might have been comprised of $250,000 for the shelter component and $250,000 for the investment component.

In effect, the appreciation potential, and the ability of the homeowner to tap into it though refinancing and home equity loans, offset the real costs of home ownership, such as mortgage payments, taxes, insurance, and maintenance. So the main reason a buyer would commit to a mortgage that would soak up 50% of his disposable income was that he expected to recover most of that outlay through future appreciation. Absent the expectation of that windfall, buyers would not have been willing to pay such staggering prices for houses or commit to burdensome mortgage payments.

Lenders were caught in the same delusion. Since they too believed prices could only rise, lending standards were thrown out the window. If the collateral (the house) were to always rise in value, what difference would it make if the buyer made the payments? In effect, instead of relying on the borrower’s ability to pay to mitigate its risk, lenders merely relied on the house’s ability to appreciate.

However, now that real estate prices are falling, lenders are beginning to rely solely on the borrower’s ability to pay. As this trend continues, lending standards will tighten and mortgages will be brought back into line with the incomes of borrowers. In addition, down payments will be larger to reflect the greater likelihood of losses should loans end up in foreclosure. When prices were rising the foreclosure risk was negligible. However, now that foreclosures are soaring and recovery rates are less than 50 cents on the dollar, those risks are enormous.

So with falling real estate prices, mortgages are much less appealing to both borrowers and lenders. The only solution is for home prices to fall to where they are cheap enough for buyers to afford the mortgage payments (both interest and principal) without relying on appreciation, teaser rates, or negative amortization, and save enough for a down payment that would protect a lender in the event of default. In addition, the collapse of the mortgage securitization market means houses must be cheap enough for our limited pool of domestic savings to supply the funding, as we will likely lose access to much of the foreign funding that fueled the bubble.

Of course we need to be honest about the winners and losers of this credit crunch. Just because mortgage money becomes scarce and lending standards tighten does not mean people will not be able to buy houses –it simply means they will pay a lot less for them and that fewer new houses will be built. Therefore it is sellers, builders and those holding or insuring existing mortgages who lose, while buyers win big. That is because despite higher interest rates and larger down payments, they end up borrowing a lot less money. In the end they will become true homeowners rather than indentured servants. If home ownership is truly is the American dream that so many realtors profess, then the ongoing collapse in home prices will be a dream come true.

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