Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More on Housing Bottoms

by Bill McBride on 3/18/2009 03:23:00 PM

Yesterday I noted that housing starts might be nearing a bottom. This post led to a number of emails from readers stating that they believe prices will fall further. I agree.

There will almost certainly be two distinct bottoms for housing: the first will be single-family housing starts, new home sales, and residential investment, and the second will be for house prices.

These bottoms could happen years apart!

As I noted yesterday, it is way too early to try to call the bottom in prices. House prices will almost certainly fall for some time. My original prediction (a few years ago) was that real house prices would fall for 5 to 7 years, and we could start looking for a bottom in the 2010 to 2012 time frame for the bubble areas. That still seems reasonable to me. However some lower priced areas might be much closer to the bottom.

For the first bottom, we have several possible measure - the following graph shows three of the most commonly used: Starts, New Home Sales, and Residential Investment (RI) as a percent of GDP.

Comparing starts, sales and residential investment Click on graph for larger image in new window.

The arrows point to some of the earlier peaks and troughs for these three measures.
The purpose of this graph is to show that these three indicators generally reach peaks and troughs together. Note that Residential Investment is quarterly and single-family starts and new home sales are monthly.

We could use any of these three measures to determine the first bottom, and then use the other two to confirm the bottom. But this says nothing about prices.

Housing Two Bottoms The second graph compares RI as a percent of GDP with the real Case-Shiller National house price index.

Although the Case-Shiller data only goes back to 1987, look at what happened following the early '90s housing bust. RI as a percent of GDP bottomed in Q1 1991, but real house prices didn't bottom until Q4 1996 - more than 5 years later!

Something similar will most likely happen again. Indicators like new home sales, housing starts and residential investment will bottom long before house prices.

Economists and analysts care about these housing indicators (starts, sales, RI) because they impact GDP and employment. However most people (homeowners, potential homebuyers) think 'house prices' when we talk about a housing bottom - so we have to be aware that there will be two different housing bottoms. And a bottom in starts doesn't imply a bottom in prices.

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