Wednesday, January 2, 2013 / by Nathan Clark
This time of year, there are a lot of things written with a “What to expect in 2013” angle. People like reading predictions, and writers like writing them.
There will be no shortage of those types of articles and columns for real estate in 2013. Things will likely be different in some ways. But before we look forward, it might be nice to look back and say goodbye to real estate in 2012.
Years from now, when we go back and analyze the past, 2012 will be seen as the pivotal year in real estate’s national recovery. Yes, certain markets began their turnaround earlier, but 2012 was the year that, nationwide, housing turned around.
The year started with promise that it sustained throughout, picking up steam as a few factors fell into place.
January 2012 was the third straight month of fairly significant increases in sales volume, which nationwide dropped the inventory of unsold homes to about a six-month level, the lowest in years. That led into February, which featured the announcement of the foreclosure settlement between states and the nation’s largest home loan lenders, as well as a drop in mortgage rates to a then-record low.
There have been some brief pauses, but for the most part, real estate in the U.S. has been going strong ever since. Growing demand, coupled with still-low purchase prices, record-low mortgage rates and the fact that we’re through the worst of the foreclosure crisis, led to the first real recovery in real estate since things fell apart in 2006.
By “real,” I mean not artificially pumped up by a tax credit, and not a flash in the pan – the industry has been growing for a year now.
In 2012, home values climbed steadily. From a low of $154,700 in January to $180,600 in November, the national median sales price rose 17 percent in 11 months, according to the National Association of Realtors. While the rise in home prices might seem a threat to affordability, which has powered the revived industry, the rising home values are what helped make 2012 the year of recovery.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One, it gave people confidence in homes again. No matter how low prices get and how low interest rates are, buyers stay out of the market where there’s the specter of possibility than a newly purchased home could drop in value. In 2012, confidence that real estate was again a safe investment helped sustain its growth.
The other factor was one that can’t be overstated. As home values rose, people were able to move again. Folks who were under water in their homes (owed more than it was worth) felt trapped. As home prices rose, inventories shrunk and buyers’ confidence returned, people who had been waiting to sell, sold. Move-up buyers returned to the game, enabled by rising home prices.
This was good because, as we look back in years to come, 2012 will be the year of the missing first-time buyer. Normally a large part of real estate surges, first-time buyers largely sat this one out in 2012. There are a couple of reasons for this, and a couple of hints that things will improve for this group.
The biggest thing for first-timers was the banks’ requiring larger down payments. First-time buyers, because they have no equity in an existing home, typically rely on low down payments. The days of zero, even 5 percent down home loans are just about gone if not forgotten, and that makes it tougher for first-time buyers.
But there was another factor. First-time buyers tend to be in the 25-to-34-year-old age demographic, and that was the same age range that has suffered higher numbers of unemployment during the economic downturn. According to CNNMoney.com, that age group had a 9.2 percent jobless rate, compared to 8.7 percent for the rest of the population. The report says that this year the gap has narrowed to 7.9 percent vs. 7.7 percent.
Overall, unemployment dropped in 2012, too, which was another huge factor in real estate’s recovery.
During the overall regaining of the economic health in theU.S., we’ve seen that we’ve had to crawl, then walk, then jog, before we can again run. It’s no different in real estate, and 2012 could be the year that the industry went from crawling to walking.
It’s the year that sales volume and prices steadily increased over a sustained period without any kind of tax break fueling markets. It’s the year that banks settled foreclosure lawsuits and made the decision that short sales are better than foreclosures and repossessions, for all involved.
It’s the year unemployment dropped, which helped more buyers in a position to take advantage of record-low mortgage rates, which seemed to hit new record lows throughout the year. It’s the year homeowners regained equity in their current homes and, in turn, regained their confidence in real estate as an asset.
We haven’t turned the corner yet, but 2012 was the year we could at least say the corner was in view and we’re walking – not running, but not crawling, either – toward it.