IS NOW THE TIME TO BUY A HOUSE?

In a past life I was a financial advisor.  And while I no longer perform the duties of a financial advisor I haven’t forgotten what it takes to offer sound financial advice on a broad array of topics.  One topic that I often get questions about is the purchase of a home.   “Is now the time to buy a house?”  “Should I rent or buy?”  “Should I invest in real estate?”  I’ll lay out some of my general thinking here so readers can better answer these important questions.

In a WSJ article last week Gary Shilling and Eric Lascelles answered an important question: “Is now the time to buy your first house?”    Shilling argued that inventories were still too high and would put downward pressure on real estate prices likely resulting in a further 20% decline in national prices.  This is consistent with the historical average as seen in Robert Shiller’s inflation adjusted house price index.  Lascelles, on the other hand, argued that housing was very affordable based on several affordability metrics and that purchasing a home in this environment will prove a steal.

My opinion sort of agrees with both men.  Now, I’ve been a big bear on real estate for a long time now.   I used to get in blow out arguments with my mother over the price of real estate back in 2005 and 2006.  In a 2006 client letter I said:

“The credit driven housing bubble remains the greatest risk to the equity markets at this time.”

In early 2010 I said prices would likely decline another 7-15%:

“As I said above, the most likely scenario is the “work-out”.   Government stimulus continues to bolster the private sector in the back half of 2010, but the lack of direct aid in housing begins to weigh on the housing market in the second half of 2010.  Negative seasonal trends make for a very difficult H2 in housing and a tough start in 2011.  The economy appears fairly strong into the latter portion of 2010, but the dwindling stimulus ultimately pressures the private sector.  Demand for housing remains tepid as job growth is weak, the unemployment rate remains above 8% into 2011 and the negative inventory trends prove too much for the real estate market to overcome.  Ultimately, prices decline 7%-15% over the course of the coming 2.5 years.”

Prices are down exactly 7% since then so it’s time for an update.  While I am not a raging bull on housing I am also no longer a raging bear.  I am rather neutral now.

First, I think Shilling is potentially right to a certain degree.  There probably is more downside in some real estate markets.   But I don’t think there’s 20% more downside in national prices.  Instead, I think we’re likely to muddle through from here with a classic post-bubble “work out” period.  I recently described why I think this is likely:

“If we take a step back and look at some longer-term data we can put this in perspective though.  I like using the Shiller CPI adjusted housing price data as well as the owner equivalent rent data from the monthly CPI reports.  These two charts will help put the declines in perspective.   As you can see below we’ve made significant progress in the mean reversion process.  According to both indicators housing prices are overpriced by roughly 15%.  This likely means there is more downside risk in the coming years, but the bulk of the declines are definitely behind us.

I think the more likely scenario is the standard post-bubble work out period where prices will not “bottom” (as many have called for), but will rather flat-line for many years.  Pull up a chart of the Nasdaq or Nikkei or Shanghai or any other number of bubbles if you’re trying to imagine what I am referring to.  What would be HIGHLY unusual is for prices to snap-back or “bottom” in a dramatic event process that leads to a surge.  Rather, we’re far more likely to see the high inventories work off slowly while prices moderate and incomes grow to bring the market back to some semblance of normalcy.”

 

So my guess is Shilling’s prediction for 20% downside and a possible overshoot further is extreme.  As Lascelles argued prices have become much more affordable in many areas, inventories are coming way down and the price to rent is back to very reasonable levels.  Calculated Risk has some update charts here:

(Price to rent)

(Existing home inventory)

All of this adds up to one thing.  Real estate is far more attractive than it was at any point in the last 8 years or so.  Has it bottomed?  That’s the wrong question in my opinion.  Real estate likely won’t crater from here, but also won’t skyrocket.  “Bottoms” (as in an event bottom) are very unusual after a bubble like we’ve seen.  The standard post-bubble “work out” period is the most likely scenario so prices could be flattish for years.  So do you buy now, rent, invest?  First, I don’t think the average retail investor should bother with investing in real estate.  Real estate investing is a full-time job and requires a great deal of hands on involvement to actually turn a consistent profit above the rate of inflation over any sustained period.  When you buy a house you should think of it as a roof over your head and a place where you will LIVE.  Not an investment.  And this is the key.  If you’re planning on living in a house (as in, 10 years of actually living in a home) then you should have no great fears about buying today.  Does that mean you’ll make money on it?  Or that it will prove more beneficial than renting?  Well, that depends on a lot of personal variables.  But the base case here for national real estate is that the risk/reward of buying a home has changed substantially and is no longer skewed to the bear case.

Cullen Roche

Mr. Roche is the Founder of Orcam Financial Group, LLC. Orcam is a financial services firm offering research, private advisory, institutional consulting and educational services.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
TwitterLinkedIn

Comments

  1. Cullen – I have a question. Maybe we can include this in the next q&a?

    I love the Case-Shiller versus Owners Equivalent Rent. Looking at that chart in 2005-2007 with other data might have led someone to go long apartment REITs or short housing stocks. The problem I see with this is that the market is inefficient so 1) It would have taken a lot of conviction to hold a short housing position from 05-07 2) apartment REITs got hit just as hard as housing stocks in the crash although now some (MAA, ESS) are stronger than ever. So the question is – can you refer me to an article or book where I can read about how to manage positions and convictions in the stock market? The little guy also loses because the big time investor could have taken a CDS position to better manage the short but we just don’t have access to that….

  2. Further significant adjustment won’t come through real price drops at all.It comes as you are implying by prices stagnating whilst the price of labour rises faster than the price of the asset itself and how long such a period of real price stagnation lasts is really unquatifiable because it is associated with the price of labour and we can’t forecast the future recovery route on that very well in the current context other than we might say that given the output gap we would not think it was going to be quick. There is nothing new about any of this this and certainly not in property which typically follows this route every time we have the boom bust scenario.The US is a lot closer to being through this process than say Spain etc because you have different rules for resolving property debt than we do which excelerates the process.

  3. Gee, Cullen, you used to look to me for advice about where housing markets are headed. For readers, I’ll point out that I write Minyanville.com’s Housing Market Report. For two years, I’ve been the only analyst in the nation consistently asserting that there is no housing bottom in sight. I’ve been spot on correct. Gives me some credibility, doesn’t it?

    Talk of a housing bottom is nonsense. Try this — I’ve been researching raveis.com for two weeks now. They provide monthly sales and price stats for every town/city in 6 northeast states. Here in CT, most towns are down 10% or more year-over-year in average price-per-square-foot for single family homes sold. All of Fairfield County, the Gold Coast, is down nearly 11%. No indices, just raw data — the real world.

    Where is the northeast headed? Try this stat — My confidential source in the NYS Dept. of Banking sent me data showing that there are at least 192,000 seriously delinquent owner-occupied properties in NYC through the end of March. That does not include investor-owned, so you need to tack on another 75,000+ or so. Long Island is even worse if you can imagine.

    The banks here in the NYC metro haven’t been foreclosing for more than three years. When they finally start to foreclose or even do short sales, prices will collapse in the four outer boroughs of NYC and in all of Long Island. I am as certain of this as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow.

    Time to stop paying attention to Case-Shiller and get ready for some ugly times in housing markets in the northeast and beyond.

      • Keith Jurow is a well known troll on this site… only shows up with Cullen writes about real estate, always explains how he’s the expert and everyone else is an idiot for not listening to him, only ever cites New York (oh boy, he’s found another state in the tri-state area), and is completely clueless about national real estate and clearly didn’t read Cullen’s post here.

        Where I live real estate prices have appreciated btwn 5% and 10% in the past 3 months… our market is on fire with about one month’s supply in most market segments… multiple offers on nearly every property, etc. Why is that? Well I’m in the Bay Area where tech is booming. So KJ and his “northeast and beyond” should maybe just tell the truth about himself… he knows NOTHING about national real estate, or real estate “beyond” his micro market, and from what I’ve read of his, I’m not convinced he knows his own markets either

        • Jurrow is no troll. He explains the reasoning for a position that hangemhi happens not to agree with. Perhaps the certainty with which he holds his perspective does not sit well with some readers, but I think it is unfair to label him for presenting his view.

          • Jurow may only know the NYC metro area, but so what? It gives some perspective on a VERY big fish in the pond, and a shoe that hasn’t dropped yet. I am also curious about the situation in NYC and its bedroom communities (i.e. all of CT). Why aren’t the banks foreclosing? Will they ever? It almost sounds like they are getting support from the Bernank for a massive extend and pretend operation that could go on for many more years until prices recover, so the banks won’t have to sell into a bad market. It may be politically impossible to ever allow this shoe to drop, at least until the West coast recovers, and if that is the case what Jurow fears will never happen. The money printer has an infinite time horizon, and he can extend and pretend forever.

            • He might be right about New York. The problem is, if he only knows the North East then he needs to let that be known. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt with my questions about Texas. Maybe he’s too busy to answer. Maybe he doesn’t know. Before I give his analysis of the entire US housing market any weight I would like to know if the data he analyzes extends beyond the North East.

              Cullen cites national data in his analysis. Keith cites New York.

  4. I’m no expert but I can tell you that the Gen Y’ers are not buying. We watched the Gen X’ers get clobbered in the housing market and are wary of a repeat.

    My successful friends and I are renting and moving around with the job opportunities. Those itching to buy are spending their money on cars and electronics and other hobbies (a couple my friends run marathons, crafts and crap on pinterest, travel, etc.)

    If the viewpoint that housing is coming back is predicated on first time homebuyers picking up the slack, I think you’re still early to the party.

  5. You know a chart with the above housing stats overlayed on personal debt might be revealing.

  6. The question on the future of house prices is general but each market is highly specific.

    Many of the distressed properties are the housing equivalent of a used Yugo to the car world. In other words they have minimal salvage value for the underlying land. Most of those “investment” properties will end up in the local landfill.

    My home area is a very popular retirement area – but for the last seven years most potential buyers cannot sell their homes to move and buy here. Currently, beautiful executive style homes on a popular golf course are listed (not selling) for 40% below replacement costs. Folks who absolutely have to move out are selling for 50% below replacement cost.

    A common characteristic of market bottoms is that at compelling values there are few or no buyers. This local market sure looks like it is close to a bottom!

    • You are correct that is why we call it a stagnation market ,but when we talk about bottoms it appeasr we cannot do it without some people have to start talking about “markets coming back” ,or “prices rising” etc etc. A bottom is what it isand the only thing it implies is that you shouldn’t expect to see it going down significantly more than it has.I’m not even sure some people can actually read because they appear to me to have a disease called “selectivitus” ;) and one has to fight the urge to capitalise the words you just know they are going to jump over.

  7. Great thoughts, Cullen, from a general perspective. Real estate truly is a local item. It’s not enought to talk regions, states, or even cities if you want to try and be precise. You have to talk neighborhoods and that is not going to be a fruitful exercise for a general board like this.

    That’s why I think Cullen’s point about looking at a house as a place to live for the next 10 +/- years makes the most sense. blagosaur’s post also makes sense. If you are not settled in to a stable career that you think you will stick with for years, there is no real rush to buy a home.

  8. It is intresting that nobody is talking about the huge factor in selling a house – 6% realtor costs. 6% on 300K house is 18K. For many people it is a huge amount of money. If they can’t make it up they won’t sell. If they are already 10% under water , this additional 6% makes selling the house impossible.
    I can’t wait for realotr companies to go bankrupt ( These are true vampire squids – no value add skimming money off the top_. Only then we can talk about any sort of housing recovery.

    • sell your house on your own then… who is stopping you? or bring in every agent in town until you get one who will do it for a huge discount.. or hire redfin or zip realty whose business model is to give you a discount.

      the truth is that buying and selling a home is often a full time job… if you’ve already got a job, chances are you don’t have the time, the expertise, or the experience to “save” that $18,000. Don’t believe me? Then what’s yoru job – and can I just step in and start doing it for your boss at half the pay?

      If you do sell your own home you’ll end up working 50 to 100 hours spread out over a period of months, lose sleep, grow grey hairs, argue with your spouse, and ultimately sell your home for a few percent below what you would have with help. And many owners on their own do all kinds of dumb things that set themselves up for lawsuits by not fully disclosing issues, screwing up the contract, etc.

      There’s a reason real estate agents are still around when travel agents aren’t… selling a home is a LOT more complicated and time consuming, and a good agent’s negotiation skills and expertise will get you at least half the commission back. But you don’t need to believe me… there are plenty of ways to get around using a full service agent or paying full price

      • Actually, we sold two houses so far. And I’ve seen all this hard work. Our agents spent 8-16 hours on us, at most. It included putting up the sign and the MLS listing, checking in with us once a month and then showing up at the closing. There was no “Cuban missle crisis” type neogtiations that I can remember.
        As for selling yourself, I intent to get a realtor license next time I need to sell, so that we only pay 3% to the guarantor. You can get it after a couple days of training, so it can’t be that hard. Actually, there are 2 people at my workplace who are realtors, in addition to their full time jobs.
        I also wonder why is it % of the list price, is selling 1 mil house much harder then seeling a 300K one? I don’t think so.
        Like it or not, the market will not bear the realtor fees for much longer and they’ll have to come down. Realtor is basically a salesman. Amazon and other online retailers found a way to eliminate salesmen from the equation and reduce the cost. Car dealerships still exists because of the laws protecting them. One day there will be a way found around the realtors as well.

  9. It’s worth mentioning here that “the average retail investor” can get a completely passive investment in local real estate deals. Just go to your local REIA. I can almost guarantee there will be a smart, experienced investor looking for your capital who can provide returns which will blow away anything you can get from the S&P 500. It’s also worth noting that this investment is much “closer to the source” and will likely go toward direct job creation, even if temporary. Take the time to do your DD on the sponsor and you can invest in RE without the hassles that generally accompany it.

    • Exactly right.

      In todays market, an experienced real estate investor can provide a passive investor 6-18% returns all day long depending upon their appetite for risk.

    • “I can almost guarantee there will be a smart, experienced investor looking for your capital who can provide returns which will blow away anything you can get from the S&P 500. ”

      Sounds like a good scam. Where do I sign up? Your next event or do you guys run commercials at midnight I should keep an eye out for.

      • I wouldn’t characterize the returns as “will blow away anything you can get from the S&P 500″, but what he says is mostly true. I have been providing passive investors a good return for years.

        So, how much do you want to invest? : )

    • Why not invest in a REIT then? When you are dealing directly with someone the risk o fraud is so much higher.

      • Sure there are dishonest real estate investors out there, but as Dave says “do your due diligence on the sponsor”. Most real estate investors without a long track record obtain funds, if not from a bank, from friends and family. This limits fraud. They usually have a long track record that you can verify by the time they seek funds from the public.

        A REIT is usually much easier to research and can be a great investment, but shares can be over, under, or properly valued. You need to be able to determine which one it is.

        On one side you are investing in one person’s ability to deliver. On the other you are investing in the market’s perception of a trust’s ability to deliver. They both have their pluses and minuses.

  10. All real estate pricing is local. California has a great housing overhang but the Dakotas have a housing shortage because of the oil boom in that area. I live in Sarasota Florida and our market is doing well. The banks have repossessed most of the lower-priced homes because their losses aren’t so great on cheaper homes. They are just beginning to repossessed the million-dollar homes because they didn’t want to put the large losses on their books. Home construction under $200,000 has noticeably increased. Builders are buying vacant lots for the first time in years. Since Sarasota is a major upper income retirement area and the baby boom which is over three times larger than the previous generation, we are experiencing a work off of the housing inventory. But, pricing is still dropping but at a slower rate. I expect another couple of years before we see any significant pricing improvement. Construction costs are going to be the controlling factor in any pricing increase.

  11. I don’t see many houses in California selling for below replacement cost.
    What I see in the coastal areas that I follow is very low inventory, multiple offers and even bidding wars on well priced properties (2003 – 2004 prices) and is some high end areas prices have not come down at all from the peak, and there isn’t much for sale.
    I dont see much more downside at least in the areas I follow, maybe stagnation but again real estate is LOCAL.

  12. With rates on the zero bound, real estate might be fairly valued. When rates raise real estate will continue lower. Shiller is not extreme,but rather pragmatic.

    • I don’t agree. In my opinion, rising rates will provide downward pressure, but rising rates will come with a strengthening economy and higher inflation which provide upward pressure.

      • If rates rise, money will flow out of REITS. Real Estate is basing in particular regions, but it is just basing. Real Estate is still a generational sell.

  13. Reporting from the NW corner of the USA, Seattle seems to be leveling off.

    Tim Ellis of Seattle Bubble.com even thinks so.

    http://seattlebubble.com/blog/2012/02/22/bottom-calling-checkup-finally-almost-there/

    Re the NY area, I believe the shadow inventory is worsened by it being a judicial foreclosure state. Here in WA (and other non-judicial foreclosure states), the work off of delinquent properties has proceeded faster. Sure, there is plenty still hanging around, but the banks have been able to get them off the books and into the market faster (and probably cheaper, too).

  14. Agree with Shlling that there is substantial downside. However, every city, region, neighborhood is different. This argument is kind of like asking people to predict where the DOW is going to be in 5 years. It is much easier to name a stock and then try to extrapolate an intrinsic value and price point for the future. Real estate is also less liquid so mispricing is all over the place. Great time for vultures with cash but yes, aggregate U.S. market has some serious downside room.

  15. Great discussion here but I did a quick scan of the posts and I think a major trend is missed. That be us Boomers! Many are or wanting to down size. I have 4000 sq feet and only live in 1500 of it. Just graduated the last one from college and a few years ago we thinking of getting a smaller house when the crap hit the fan so to speak. I know many whom have big old half empty houses. Add to that some have 2nd “vacation homes that they plan to retire into in the not to distant future going from two to one house. The Real Estate bubble was partly driven by us Boomers and now it will be a very big factor over the coming decades. This trend is not in any stat or on any graph but is real and will be pervasive.

    • I didn’t want a big house to begin with but in the nice area where I live there isn’t a big difference in price between 3bd and 5bd home and 5 bd is so much easier to sell. And even that 3bd house has lots of useless space ( huge dining room and living room and so on), so itsn’t that small. I think you’ll have hard time finding a smaller house, they weren’t popular in the last 20 years. Unless the builders catch on the trend and start building them. But then the issue will be with too many McMansions on the market and not enough buyers.

  16. The local story from my house (can’t get more ‘local’ than that!) Making payments, but underwater. When it’s time to retire, I am walking. If I were to get another job in another state, I would walk.
    Also I know many of my retired clients who are underwater and can’t sell. When they pass or have to sell because of health issues, more property comes on the market.
    All kinds of shadow inventory out there, imo.

  17. There are indeed good markets in states that were not over inflated to begin with Cullen. But if you asked me my thoughts on California for instance I would tell you stay out unless you are investing in rental property. Look at housing regionally or better by state and go do some investigating. Buyer beware the good deals are not good deals if all the other homes in the neighborhood are underwater or in foreclosure.

    Currently it is a buyers market according to my wife who is in local real estate. The home prices are still falling.

  18. GRock. Great point. I know quite a few of the boomer age that are downsizing or thinking of it. Also, I know many young professionals that are perfectly content on renting with no time frame or hurry to buy. It was just a massive psychological shift for the 25-35 crowd witnessing this contained depression.

  19. Troll, huh? That’s an interesting one. I won’t waste my time responding to your insults. I’m too busy. Are you a professor of some kind?

    Cullen used to post my articles regularly. Ask him why he doesn’t anymore. I’m glad you think your market is on fire. Wait until the banks in California really start to foreclose and put them on the MLS. I hope you make a fortune in your hot market. But I doubt it very much.

  20. Another HUGE factor is the ole inflation vs deflation thing.

    Real estate, especially with a mortgage, is not a good thing in the deflationary environment we have seen in the recent past.

    But inflation at even a 3-4% annual rate can totally flip the equation, especially if you can lock in a mortgage that is 3% or so after tax deductions.

    Many of the younger folks haven’t experienced significant inflation in their adult lives. If/when inflation makes a return, attitudes toward home ownership could change in a hurry.

  21. The fiscal cliff we face next year should also give you reason to be skittish about buying real estate now. Lots of people could be hanging on for better prices, simply because they can. If tax rises/spending reductions next year cause a lot of job loss, a lot of people could throw in the towel.

  22. “When you buy a house you should think of it as a roof over your head and a place where you will LIVE. Not an investment.”

    This past weekend I was on vacation with several friends and the topic of buying a home came up. As a brief background, we’re all in our late 20’s, have decent savings and are in serious relationships (with a couple of us being engaged). I’ve previously outlined my views for stagnating to lower prices and mortgage rates over the next couple years. While being aware of this potential outcome is important for potential buyers, this point from Cullen is the real message I tried to get across this weekend and think all first-time buyers (probably most buyers) should consider.

    http://bubblesandbusts.blogspot.com/2012/05/buy-house-for-experience-not-potential.html

  23. Really looks like even………..
    Irish new Mortgage lending
    IBF/PwC Mortgage Market Profile Q1 2012

    Q1 2012 : 450m
    Q3 2012 : 10,962m

  24. Sorry that should read.

    Q1 2012 : 450m
    Q3 2006 : 10,962m

    You see even I am in shock at these numbers….. and to think they won’t even give us a medium of exchange to fill the credit void ?

  25. When I look at the Price-to-Rent buying a house in order to rent it out would make perfect sense. But nonetheless I won’t touch any real estate related investment now or in the near future (say 10 years). Too much downside potential. Even when houseprices would decline only a 10% more.

  26. The REAL real estate crash is still up ahead. And that’s going to occur when (NOT IF) the banks see their income dry up. The banks are already insolvent but what keeps them from a complete collapse is that their income is stil larger than their financial obligations. And falling interest rates doesn’t help either. Because banks invest their reserves in (T-)bonds. And the FED printing lots of money doesn’t help either because it will push interest rates even more.

  27. Real Estate is very localized. Properties in North Dakota are booming, 3 fold increases. What will really determine if housing has bottomed is your local economy.

    Portland Oregon’s booming downtown tech companies (another Silicon Valley off shoot) has pushed inner downtown properties back up to their 2007 highs and beyond. the jobs created from this tech boom are about twice the old average Portland wage and these workers want to live downtown.

    But out lying areas – well they are still getting hammered because the manufacturing, service & other sectors are not doing well and still shedding jobs or reducing pay.

    Agree with comments by others on here, a high percentage of Y Gener’s don’t want to buy, whether it be “risk off” to property ownership or simply want to be transient in their lifestyle. As a multiple home owner, more power to them, every year I get a better rate of return on the higher rent I can collect. There will be a tipping point when they will see the benefit to owning, but I don’t see that in the near future.

  28. I got insight into my bidding war…been trying to buy for a few years now. I live in So California in Ventura County. There is still NO DEMAND…bidding war? You call two people bidding against eachother for a very nice 1900 to 2100 sq ft house in a planned community with pool and jacuzzi in backyard which asking price was $529 and BID DOWN to $440 which is about the comps in the area! My co-bidder bid $440k and I $450k and sellers asked them for $465k and asked ME for $475k!!! Clever little realtors…wonder what they talk about in their closed door morning meetings? I am also looking at a 2495 sq ft house in the same community no pool but same community…bank sick of dealing with an all cash investor that dropped out of the sell but now is back in the game again asking for a lower price because he is all cash…person losing the house is a divorcing LAFD Captain and trophey wife with blondhair and botox lips…its ridiculoius…Housing is not flying off the shelf, just stagnating. The sellers realtor accidently sent us the oppossing bidders offer which is below mine…they keep trying to play us against ourselves to no avail because you can’t get blood out of a turnip…there is just a MAX to what most people can afford and there is a GLUT of McMansions in California. There is a new law which will require notice of exceptance of offer in a short sale from 5 to 6 months to 60 days max which should be law in July. There are far more people not making payments on there underwater homes, truth not being told. There is a difference in your stats and what I see, many people I know have a neighbor in there area not making payments, one example is a person renting out her home, then bank comes knocking on renters door to foreclose, homeowner moves back in claiming its her primary residence after pocketing all that rent money…now she is asking for a deal not to foreclose while keeping that free rent money! If she doesn’t get her wishes then she delays with a shortsale or bankruptcy! Bottom is real estate…really? There are articles from years past stating the fed gov knew people were not making their house payments but it was adding to the fragile GDP, so do not distrub!