Each month, the Obama Administration releases a Housing Scorecard intended to give a snapshot not only of current housing market conditions, but to offer a comparison between current and past conditions. Data from January was released in early February, and there are a number of bright spots that point to sustained recovery.
The best news has to do with the existing housing stock itself. There were nearly 300,000 fewer homes available for purchase in January as compared to December, and nearly 700,000 fewer than a year ago. There is now just over a 6-month supply of homes on the market, compared with 7 months in December and over 8 months a year ago. Mortgage delinquencies remained largely unchanged between December and January, but default notices dropped by over 10 percentage points.
Though new home sales dropped between December and January, existing home sales rose by more than 20,000. In addition, there were nearly 10,000 more first time home buyers in January than in December, and distressed home sales only rose by one percentage point. The fact that so many people decided to explore the possibility of buying their first home in January is an excellent sign that consumers are beginning to regain some confidence in the market.
For the last couple of years, though housing prices have been at their lowest levels in decades, there were far more homes than buyers in the market. There are two main reasons for this. First, potential buyers simply didn’t believe home prices were going to improve. Consequently, they’ve been hesitant to invest in new homes, for fear that they would invest in a home only to have its value continue to fall. Many worried they would end up, like so many other homeowners, owing more than their house was worth.
The second reason buyers have stayed out of the market until recently is that banks have been as hesitant to lend as buyers have been to buy. Mortgage requirements are more strict than they’ve been in years, which is a good thing. But the tighter requirements have scared off even qualified buyers who have assumed that banks simply aren’t willing to lend.
But the steady decrease in the housing supply has lead to a slow but steady increase in home values. As a result, potential buyers are being drawn into the market at a faster rate. If home values continue to rise, it’s likely that buyers will enter market even more quickly, in hopes of getting a “good deal” before housing prices rise significantly.
Yet another interesting trend has to do with the quality of the homes on the market. When foreclosures first began to skyrocket, home buyers found they had a wide range of quality properties from which to choose. But over the last several months, that has begun to change. Properties that were foreclosed on a year or two ago are falling into disrepair, and while there are still a lot of homes on the market, there is far more quantity than quality.
Real estate agents have begun to notice that quality homes receive multiple purchase offers, while homes in poor condition receive no offers at all. In some markets, quality homes are actually selling above list price.
This creates an interesting challenge, but potential for creative solutions. Affordable housing developers have already begun exploring the possibility of converting foreclosed properties into low-income housing. And the Obama Administration, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has enacted some programs aimed at making those types of conversions easier. It will probably be years, however, before we know how well those efforts have worked.