2012 Housing Market Predictions: Prices and Rates to Remain Low

Home prices in 20 U.S. cities probably declined at a slower pace and consumer confidence improved, signs the economy gained strength heading into 2012, economists said before reports this week.

Property values dropped 3.2 percent in October from the same month in 2010, the smallest year-over-year decrease since January, according to the median forecast of 20 economists before a Dec. 27 report from S&P/Case-Shiller. Consumer confidence rose to a five-month high in December and more people signed contracts to buy previously owned homes than a month earlier, other data may show.

Rising builder confidence, fewer unsold new properties on the market and a pickup in construction point to improvement in the industry that triggered the last recession. Real estate is still facing another wave of foreclosures that may keep pressure on home prices, making for an uneven housing recovery.

“We’ll continue to see prices drop,” said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The middle of 2012 is when we think prices will actually bottom.”

Economists surveyed projected the gauge of residential real-estate values declined 0.3 percent in October from the prior month, when it fell 0.6 percent. The index was down 31 percent in September from its July 2006 peak. The year-over-year gauge provides a better indication of trends in prices, the group has said. The panel includes Karl Case and Robert Shiller, the economists who created the index.

Pending Home Sales
Figures on Dec. 29 may show pending sales of previously owned homes rose 1.5 percent in November after a 10 percent jump, economists said before a report from the National Association of Realtors.

Reports last week showed a pickup in demand for houses. Sales of previously owned homes, which make up about 94 percent of the market, rose 4 percent to a 4.42 million annual pace, the most since January, the National Association of Realtors said Dec. 21.

Purchases of new single-family properties advanced 1.6 percent to a 315,000 annual pace, a seven-month high, figures from the Commerce Department showed Dec. 23. The increase pushed the number of new homes on the market to a record low.

Those gains have buoyed builders’ stocks since the end of the third quarter. The Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Homebuilding Index, which includes Toll Brothers Inc. and Lennar Corp., has climbed 32 percent, while the broader S&P 500 has gained 12 percent.

Consumer Confidence
As housing stabilizes and employment strengthens, consumers are becoming more optimistic. Confidence rose to 58.6 from 56 last month, according to the Bloomberg survey median before a Dec. 27 report from the New York-based Conference Board.

Other surveys reflect gains in optimism. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index improved to minus 45 in the period ended Dec. 18 from a reading of minus 49.9 the prior week, marking the biggest seven-day gain since January. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment rose to a six-month high in December. Some homebuilders say an increase in sentiment is needed to help boost demand.

“We need a higher level of confidence to get back to the traditional move-upstream or first-time buyer out of the rental,” Jeffrey Mezger, chief executive officer of KB Home, said on a Dec. 21 conference call with analysts. “A lot of consumers are surprised, frankly, at how low home payments are compared to rent.”

Policy makers are promoting programs designed to reinvigorate the housing market. The Obama administration this month started a new version of the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, after the original plan helped less than a quarter of the people targeted to lock in lower mortgage rates.

Officials at the Federal Reserve this month reiterated that they will keep the benchmark interest rate near zero until at least mid-2013. The central bank in September decided to reinvest maturing housing debt into new mortgage-backed securities instead of Treasuries.