Six months ago all the stars were aligned for a spring market that would take America’s housing recovery to new levels and perhaps the rest of the national economy with it.
Since then too many things have gone wrong take for granted another good year. First, inventories dragged, failing to replenish at a healthy rate through most of the winter months as sellers registered their concerns over modest predictions for price appreciation. On realtor.com huge database inventories fell 6.24% in November and ended the year at virtually the same level as the year before, when record low inventories produced overheated markets and bidding wars. By February, however, the picture improved to drive inventories above 2012 by 10 percent and rising as spring neared.
Then alarms sounded about the anemic levels of sales recorded through the winter months, a trend not hard to understand in light of devastating series of Polar Vortex backed storms that swept through the nation from the Rockies to New England once a week through January, February and into March. Yet some observers believe there is more than weather to be concerned about (See Sales Freefall Continued in February).
If buyers are backing down, perhaps there’s good reason. Our analysis of Ellie Mae data on FICO scores found that median FICO scores for FHA purchase loans have declined less than 2 percent and the median FICO for conventional purchase loans have fallen less than 1 percent over the past 12 months. (See Who Should be Cheering for Falling FICO Scores?). For all practical purposes, it’s just as hard to qualify for a mortgage to buy a home as it was a year ago…except a year ago interest rates and home prices were lower.
In a front page article in today’s Washington Post, Dina ElBoghdady suggested that rising interest rates might be the final straw.
“The higher rates, soaring home prices and a tight inventory have kept potential buyers on the sidelines, hurting the sales of previously owned homes and undermining the recovery of the housing market, a huge contributor to economic growth. Nevertheless, housing experts worry that interest rates, which are expected to gradually rise to nearly 6 percent by late next year, will chill enthusiasm for home purchases. They say they’re already seeing signs of that, most recently among existing homeowners,” she wrote.
With the spring market ready to bloom as soon as the snow melts, here’s how the latest data looks. List prices from Housing Tracker’s 53 metros are still holding strong at 10.1 percent, up 3 percent from mid-February. However, DataQuick reports sales through March 20 are 6.1 percent lower than a year ago, a deficit that has doubled over the past month. Sellers have yet to react to the pressure and list prices on DataQuick are holding strong at 12.6 percent over a year ago.
Softness in sales began in February and most sources attributed it to the weather. The REAL Trends Housing Market Report for February showed that housing sales declined by 0.8 percent from the same month a year ago. This is the worst result since the recovery began in September 2011. The annual rate of new and existing home sales for February 2014 was 5.547 million units down slightly from 5.590 million units sold in February 2013.
It’s hard to argue with Matt Farrell’s logic. “February’s weather was not any more welcoming to buyers than January in Chicago. People do not want to go shopping for homes in unseasonably cold weather,” said Matt Farrell, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors and managing partner of Urban Real Estate.
Has the bad weather covered up deeper issues that will plague this spring market as buyers stay home and sales plummet? Or should we start putting on our dancing shoes? The next four weeks will surely answer those questions.