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Low Prices and Cheap Loans Abound – But Where Are All the Home Buyers?

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By Alan J. Heavens

RISMEDIA, July 9, 2010—(MCT)—On paper, it’s the chance of a lifetime—a golden opportunity not to be missed.

Mortgage interest rates are at their lowest since 1971 and home prices have reached their lowest point since 2002, says IHS Global Insight Inc. economist Patrick Newport, and appear to be stabilizing.

Veteran real estate agents are hard-pressed to remember a time when rock-bottom rates and affordable prices converged this way. So where are all the buyers now that the tax credit is gone?

Reading headlines about the still-iffy economy and staying put, apparently.

Unemployment and lingering uncertainty about the future rank high on a long list of reasons the housing market is still all bound up. Add folks’ inability to sell the homes they have so they can buy new ones, plus tight credit, low offers and too many people just out looking.

“Buyers are looking for the perfect wave,” said Art Herling, regional vice president at Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.

Seller Robin Lori wants that perfect wave to break at her spacious townhouse on Philadelphia’s Green Street, listed at $949,000. The family has occupied this suburban-like space for just two years. Ron Lori landed a good job in Chicago after more than a year out of work, and Robin and her two children who have “thrived on city life,” are following.

“We did have a private offer at the beginning of the year, and for seven weeks, we thought it was sold,” said Lori, filling another packing box. But the buyers’ credit was not good enough for an affordable rate, the deal fell through and the couple lost two precious months before the house and its roof-deck view went on the market.

Last week, Herling said there had been an uptick in multiple offers on houses and he said he thought sales contracts for June looked to be 4-7% above a lackluster May.

The post-tax-credit drop-off in sales concerns Moody’s Economy.com chief economist Mark Zandi though. “The severity of the decline is surprising, particularly given the rock-bottom mortgage rates,” he said. “The stock market correction, weakening confidence and the tough job market may be more of a weight on housing demand than I think.”

Gerald Pierri of Exton, Pa., sat down recently with his newly married son, crunching numbers to see if his son could afford a house in the Boston area, where he lives. Needless to say, they were surprised by what they found.

Before the tax-credit cutoff on April 30, interest rates were about one percentage point higher. Buy today, and the savings on a $250,000, 30-year fixed mortgage would be $54,993 over the life of the loan. “While most people are likely aware of lower rates, very few do the math to see what the savings represent,” said Pierri.

A May 2010 Prudential Fox & Roach survey of 690 buyers says people are, indeed, aware. More than 78% of those surveyed said low mortgage rates contributed to the uptick in real estate sales before the tax credit expired.

Also a big factor, 68.3% said: lower prices. So why are buyers having second thoughts?

“Uncertainty, of their future, of their job, of their relationships”—that is the reason he hears most often from wary buyers, said Realtor Mark Wade, who focuses on Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood. “Many Center City buyers know that a wife or husband, kids and a minivan are in their future, but they are often unsure of when those life-altering events will occur,” said Wade, a Prudential Fox & Roach agent. “Each in and of itself can change one’s need for specific housing.”

Other reasons he hears are fear of change and unfamiliarity with the process.

Economist Joel L. Naroff points to a shortage of equity for down payments, given a decline in property values. “A logjam has formed since many people cannot buy a house until they sell their old one, and that cycle has to be broken by confidence in the economy and ability to sell homes,” Naroff said. “Right now, that doesn’t exist.”

Countered Noelle Barbone, manager of Weichert Realtors’ Media, Pa., office, who has been selling houses since 1969: “Sure, you might not sell your house for what you would have gotten a few years ago, but you won’t have to pay as much for a new one.”

“Everyone is afraid of buying a house only to watch its value erode in the first year or two,” said Bankrate.com columnist Holden Lewis. “Even if they plan to live in it for many years, people succumb to fear of short-term price depreciation.”

Jobs—or the lack of them—are making the difference, said Philadelphia mortgage broker Fred Glick. Employment growth will come slowly “because there is no magic bullet for an economic shot in the arm, like the computer/Internet boom of the ’90s.”

As Philadelphia economist Kevin Gillen sees it, “The recession that started with the bursting of the housing bubble has come full circle. Whereas housing led us into the recession, the recession is now leading housing.”

(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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