Housing Market Woes an Obstacle
to Growth

A look at what's going on with the U.S. housing market.If you are a buyer, the current housing market continues to afford good opportunities, whether as a principal residence or as an investment property. If you are looking for beachfront housing in Florida, there may not be a better time than to buy now. Then again, the housing market remains in a flux driven by high unemployment and record foreclosures.

It’s true that the housing market is much improved from a year ago, but there continue to be problems. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index of 20 major metropolitan areas in the United States showed lower housing prices in all 20 areas in October. In fact, October was the fifth straight month in which the annual growth was lower sequentially.

I remain somewhat bearish on the housing market in 2011 and into 2012. If you are a buyer, great; but sellers may continue to face lower prices.

The housing market continues to be sluggish, with weak growth in building permits and housing starts. In November, Housing Starts of 555,000 were better than the estimate of 545,000 and the 534,000 in October. An improvement, but we are also interested in the reading for Building Permits, which foreshadows the Housing Starts. In November, Building Permits of 530,000 fell short of the estimate of 560,000 and the 552,000 in October.

The housing market is improving and it’s better than where it stood a year ago, but we feel there will continue to be barriers as we move ahead.

Consider that a key driver of the housing market is jobs. We need jobs and security in order to give buyers the confidence to assume a mortgage and not worry about losing their job and missing payments. Until we see this, I really question how confident home buyers will be. In December, the key non-farm jobs report showed the disappointing creation of 103,000 jobs, well below the consensus estimate of 170,000.

The Fed’s Beige Book pointed to stronger growth this year, but the Federal Reserve also added that there continues to be issues with the soft jobs and housing sectors. The Fed said it may take up to five years for the unemployment rate to fall to the normal of around six percent.

When people struggle financially, one of the first things to go is your home, along with your car. At this time, there are estimated to be about five million homeowners behind on at least two payments, according to data from foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac Inc. What is more worrying is that an estimated 1.2 million homes will be foreclosed this year, above the one million in 2010.

Besides the loss of jobs, homeowners are also just walking away from their homes in many cases when the value of the home is below the outstanding mortgage. The reality is that no one wants negative home equity and sometimes, instead of waiting for home prices to rally, it may be just as easy to walk away.

This will be a critical week for housing. Key data include Housing Starts and Building Permits on Wednesday, along with less important data, including NAHB Housing Market Index, MBA Mortgage Purchase Index, and Existing Home Sales.