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Robert Barone: Is U.S. housing healing?

Last Tuesday, a headline in the business media read: “U.S. housing heals as starts near three-year high.”
I scratched my head. The last three years have been the worst in recorded U.S. housing history. The accompanying chart tells the story. It is a real stretch to believe that this data indicates “healing.” Worse, everybody knows that the extremely mild winter has pulled demand forward; this is especially true for housing starts, as contractors don’t pour foundations in freezing weather, but use mild periods in the winter to get a head start for spring sales.
The data shown in this chart is “seasonally adjusted,” a statistical process that attempts to normalize fluctuations in data caused by such things as weather or holiday shopping. The seasonal adjustment process assumes January and February have typical winter weather. So, if the mild winter caused contractors to pour more foundations than they would have in a normal winter, then the seasonal adjustment process overstates what would be a normalized level of housing starts.
There is a similar story for sales of existing homes — the data was released last Wednesday. Because of the weather and other significant issues, I suspect that new starts and sales (where the “seasonal factors” normalize to the downside) will disappoint in the months ahead. Here’s why:
There are 3 important price categories: less than $300,000; $300,000 to $800,000; $800,000 and above.
There are three important buying groups: first-timers; move-ups; retirees. Generally, the first-timers purchase the under $300,000 homes, while the move-ups purchase in the other two categories. Retirees, usually sell from the upper two categories and “downsize.”
Government stimulus programs and record low interest rates have made homes the most affordable in decades (current index = 206; 100 means that a median income family can afford a median income home). First-time buyers can get a low down payment low interest rate loan (what happens if interest rates rise?), but those in the move-up category must rely on traditional bank-type financing, which requires a big down payment.
The home price downdraft since 2007 has taken many of the move-up buyers out of the market. CoreLogic data shows that 50 percent of current U.S. homeowners (the move-ups and the retirees) have less than 20 percent equity in their homes. That means that a significant percentage of move-ups cannot sell their existing home, pay a realtor’s commission (usually 6 percent), and have a 20 percent down payment for the move-up property.
History shows a healthy housing sector is critical to U.S. economic growth, and that when the move-ups are not healthy the sector does poorly.
Retirees are finding their homes are not worth what they thought. Their tendency is to stay put and wait for a better market. In fact, the media hype around “healing” is probably keeping them in their homes, as they now believe that a better market is just ahead! This is called “shadow” inventory, which means that the number of homes officially for sale understates the real supply.
With this view, we would expect the low-priced homes to be doing well but the upper two price brackets to be doing poorly. February data from Dataquick for the Southern California housing market confirms this view. First-time buyer price point sales (under $300,000) are up 9.5 percent from a year earlier, while the other two price point sales are both down (the $300,000 to $800,000 down by .8 percent, and the $800,000 and above down by 12.6 percent).
Nothing in this data, from the seasonal adjustment bias to the health of two of the three buying groups, tells me U.S. housing is healing.


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