Last week, the news broke that interest rates hit yet another low: 4.45% on a 30-year-fixed and a stunning 3.87% on a 15-year fixed rate loan. At the same time, home prices are at or near bottom in most American cities.
Apparently everything's on sale, when it comes to real estate, Affordability is near an all-time high.
Nevertheless, pending home sales are barely creeping up, reflecting what the National Association of Realtors calls a "gradual improvement" in home sales. So, what's stopping buyers from running out to grab up all these affordable homes at affordable rates?
1. Fear of foreclosures. The ongoing robo-signing/foreclosure fraud scandal and the resulting foreclosure freeze is beginning to play a role. If you haven't heard, two of America's largest mortgage servicers have frozen foreclosures and resales of foreclosed homes in 23 states, and Bank of America, the largest lender in the land, has frozen them in all 50 states, all because sweeping fraud and improprieties have been revealed in the way the banks are processing foreclosure documentation.
Buyers have a somewhat justified fear that if they buy a foreclosed home, that sale could be reversed down the road if it comes out that the banks wrongfully foreclosed on the former owner. And that could be stopping buyers from, well, buying foreclosed homes.
2. Waiting for the shadow inventory to come out. The phrase 'shadow inventory' refers to the homes that have been (or will soon be) foreclosed on by the banks, which are not yet on the market; some estimate this inventory to be as high as 7 million homes! Many buyers who are actively house hunting -- and who are disappointed with the homes that are available -- are fearful of pulling the trigger because they believe the banks are going to start releasing their 'shadow inventory' soon, and that those homes will be better than what's out there on the market right now.
3. Waiting for the bottom. Given the trajectory of home prices over the past couple of years, there's a large contingent of buyers who are afraid that after they buy, home price will continue to fall and they will lose their hard-earned investment in the home. These are folks who are still waiting for the bottom (although by some accounts, including that of the Case-Shiller Price Index, the bottom is here or has already passed, in many cities).
Human nature is always to wait too long for the bottom, miss it, and then end up wishing we had bought sooner. The behavioral economics theory of myopic loss aversion explains this phenomenon as being due to the fact that the pain of losing money generates a greater psychological fear and avoidance than the prospect of gaining the same amount of money. Buyers can set themselves up to gain over time, even if they lose equity in the very near term, by making smart decisions about the home they buy and how much they pay for it, and planning to stay in their home for a longer term than previous generations of buyers did.
4. Unemployment/underemployment. Take California, for instance. The national unemployment rate is 9.6%; California's is a whopping 12.8%. But right around the same number of Californians are underemployed, meaning they work part-time, but want full-time work. That's right, a quarter of Californians are unemployed or underemployed, and -- right again! - none of those people are buying homes. On top of that, many people who do have jobs lack job security, the confidence of believing they'll be able to keep their jobs in the future. Interest rates could be zero, and people will not buy homes as long as they have no jobs or job security.
5. Need to keep options open. Because home values are so volatile, currently, there's no guarantee that you can resell today's new home tomorrow without taking a loss. If we've learned anything from this crisis, we all know that it just doesn't pencil, financially, to buy a home on today's market unless you plan to own the home for at least 7 years (give or take a year or so, depending on how your market has fared in the housing recession).
Many Americans don't want to be tied to one location, given the changes in the job market, because they simply don't want to be stuck in one place, geographically speaking. They want to be free to meet someone via online dating and move if the match sticks. They want the freedom to move across the country or even to the next city or state for a job, if that's the direction their career takes them. The more mobile the person, the less likely they are to buy a home.
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