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Time to Reality Check the Real Estate Market

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By OB Jacobi

Rarely does a day go by that I don’t get asked if this is a good time to buy and/or sell a home. Some people might think that my response is always an emphatic “YES!” because I work in real estate. But in truth, there is no right or wrong answer. Every person’s circumstances are unique, so in some cases the answer might be yes, but for others it might make more sense to wait. Allow me to explain.

The good news is that we’re finally coming out of the housing slump of the past five-plus years. Housing is a major driving factor of the U.S. economy, so regardless of whether or not one owns a home, a stronger housing market is good for everyone. For some would-be home sellers, this positive momentum, combined with a rise in home prices and buyer activity, is enough to compel them to list their home. And right now the statistics appear to be on their side.

According to the most recent findings from the National Association of REALTORS®, total housing inventory has fallen for the past several months, settling at just under two million existing homes on the market that are available to buyers. This represents about a four-month-supply of homes throughout the U.S. This is the lowest housing supply the nation has seen since May of 2005 – during the peak of the housing boom.

“Months supply” basically means that if existing homes were to continue selling at the current rate, the inventory of homes would be sold by that many months. A “normal” market usually has around six months of supply; therefore lower numbers mean a shortage of inventory. If demand is greater than supply, this often leads to competition amongst buyers – and rising prices – as we’ve seen in many markets throughout the Western U.S.

Here are the current inventory levels in key markets along the West Coast, all of which fall below six months of supply and report strong competition among buyers.

· Seattle: 1.4 months
· Portland: 4.2 months
· San Francisco: 1.8 months
· Las Vegas: 3.8 months
· Palm Springs: 2.5 months

The following graph demonstrates the downward trend in the overall U.S. month’s supply of homes which is currently at about 4.4 months:

Existing-Homes-Chart

So what does this mean for buyers and sellers?

It means as long as inventory levels remain low, competition amongst buyers will remain high, and home prices should continue to steadily rise – albeit at a healthy rate – not like what we saw during the housing boom. As evidence of this, in the recent Home Price Expectation Survey, 105 leading housing analysts called for a 3.1 percent increase in home values by the end of 2013. And in a recent report by the National Association of REALTORS®, median home prices last quarter showed the strongest year-over-year increase in seven years.

Another thing that buyers and sellers need to keep their eye on is interest rates and their impact on affordability. Interest rates have been at such historical lows for so long that it’s easy to take them for granted. But the truth is that several lending institutions, including Freddie Mac and the Mortgage Bankers Association, project that interest rates will rise from 3.4 to 4.4 percent by the end of 2013. A full point increase can have a significant impact on the amount of your mortgage over the long term.

I’ll explain:

Assuming a 30-year-mortgage at a 3.4 percent interest rate, a home valued at $360,000 in today’s market would have a monthly payment of $1,596.53. If prices rise by 3.1 percent and interest rates rise to 4.4 percent, as both have been predicted to do in the coming year, that same home would be worth $371,160 and have a monthly payment of $1,858.62 (see chart below). This is a difference of $262.09 per month – $3,145.08 annually – and $94,352.40 over the life of the loan. That’s not chump change.

With these types of projections, one might wonder why there isn’t a flood of homes coming on the market. The biggest concern I hear from many would-be sellers is that they’re going to lose money because their home is worth less today than when they bought it. A valid concern, to be sure, but not necessarily the case for many folks. Remember, you’re buying and selling in the same market conditions, so if your home has lost value in recent years, it is highly likely that the next home you buy has as well.

I recently spoke to a friend of mine who wanted to sell but was afraid of losing money. He bought his Seattle-area home back in 2002 for $275,000. Over the next five years the market boomed and by 2007 his home was worth about $430,000. During that time, homes in many areas around Seattle appreciated by over 55 percent. Then the housing market crashed – and with it so did home prices. In my friend’s mind he lost $155,000 and now he thinks he should wait to sell until he can gain all that loss back.

Today, my friend’s home is worth about $327,000 – a gain of $52,000 over what he paid in 2002. If experts are right about an annual gain of three percent in the coming years, he will have to wait 10 years before his home is worth what it was during the peak of the market in 2007. My advice to him? If it’s the right time to move and you can afford to do it, go for it, but don’t base your decision on numbers that were the result of an artificially inflated market.

It goes without saying that nobody wants to sell at the bottom of the market, yet at the same time, everybody wants to buy at the bottom. Obviously these two scenarios can’t exist at the same time, but I hope the information in this blog shows there are definitely opportunities to be had by both buyers and sellers that are worth considering.

OB Jacobi is the president of Windermere Real Estate.

For more information, visit www.windermere.com.

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