Housing Market Bottoming Out: Clear as Egg Nog

Since the beginning of the house-price crash in 2007, analyst after analyst has predicted that “the bottom” in house prices is just around the corner – only to be wrong every time.

But now, finally, it looks as though house prices may actually be nearing a bottom. Why?
Because, after falling nearly 35% from their 2007 peak, nationwide house prices are finally approaching “normal” levels on two key valuation measures: The “price-to-rent ratio,” which measures house prices relative to what the houses might rent for, and the “price-to-income ratio,” which measures house prices relative to average incomes.

Using the first ratio, economists at Goldman Sachs have concluded that national house prices will decline another 2.5% in 2012 and then bottom over the course of the following year.

House prices differ markedly depending on where you live, of course, and Goldman’s analysts have considerably different predictions for different markets. Prices in New York, Portland and Atlanta, Goldman predicts, will still see significant declines. While prices in Detroit, Miami and Cleveland should rise.

Importantly, after a price bubble similar to the one the U.S. just experienced, prices often don’t stop at “average” levels on the way down. On the contrary, they often plunge straight through “fair value” and spend years below average levels. And that certainly could happen to house prices this time around.

But Goldman’s economists believe house prices will level out in a year or two. And unlike other analysts who have made similar predictions in prior years, Goldman’s economists actually have data on their side: The price-to-rent ratio really has fallen to normal levels.

Of course, even if house prices do bottom in 2013, that doesn’t mean that they’ll quickly shoot up again – or that housing will once again be the “great investment” that everyone thought it was back in the boom years.

One of the reasons house prices are expected to bottom soon is that houses are currently more affordable than they have been in the past. But housing “affordability” is judged, in large part, on mortgage rates, and mortgage rates are currently near an all-time low. If and when the economy begins to recover in earnest, mortgage rates will likely rise, and, as they do, houses will become less affordable. So it is likely that, even after they bottom, U.S. house prices will face headwinds for a long time.