Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why Does Consumer Confidence Matter?

I like to read the papers as early as possible in the day. As a morning person, I find that I can absorb bad economic news best before 6 AM. This morning, I was challenged to do just that, as consumer confidence hit a low that was unexpected by analysts. That, of course, will make the real estate market worse.

It's somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation, because the poor real estate market has a lot to do with what happens to the consumer confidence index. Is it so low because recent news about housing sales has been so negative? Or is low confidence causing the level of real estate sales to drop? Although it's hard to know for sure, it's probably some of each.

If you were making a list of what goes into the strength of the real estate market, apart from local issues and demographic trends, you would probably cite three things: household income; interest rates; and consumer confidence. Income is obvious, because the more you earn, the more you can afford to buy. That can occur because your job pays more over time, or for other reasons, such as the run-up in prices caused by two-income families going up dramatically and allowing housing prices to follow. Interest rates also have a clear effect. Since the only thing that really matters to most people is the amount of their monthly payment, lower rates will let them buy more house for the same monthly nut.

Consumer confidence is really the measurement of people's expectations about the near-term future, both of their own situations and the national economy. To translate that into housing prices and sales, the index reflects what they think will happen to their jobs and wages. Unless they feel positive about their prospects, they are most likely not going to take on additional or increased debt. Unfortunately, there is a multiplier effect as well; when they read that others are not feeling rosy about the future, their own opinions tend to drop as well.

The Federal government is charged with raising confidence about all of our futures. Let's hope, for all our sakes, that they come up with something that works, and sooner rather than later.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Our Annual Day of Caring

For the past eight years, we have closed all of our offices for one fall day, and volunteered in non-profit settings around Greater New Haven. Tomorrow is this year's day, and we will be at Saint Martin de Porres Academy in the Hill section of New Haven. Some of us do hard physical labor, while others do office work. It's great to work as a team across offices, with coworkers that we don't get to see all the time.

Day of Caring was created by United Way after 9/11. I remember the first year, and how good it felt to be doing something positive on such a mournful day. Agents came up to me and commented on their gratitude, to be able to commemorate sorrow and do good at the same time. Over the ensuing years, it became part of the H. Pearce calendar, that demonstrated our values as a company, and gave back to the communities that nourish us.

This year seems a little different. While we still believe in giving back, and we still support United Way, many agents are hurting economically themselves. They may have taken a second job, or given up luxuries (and maybe necessities), as they struggle to cope with a flailing real estate market. We all have uncertainty and worry about the future.

Ironically, this is the time when we should be helping others the most. It's when you reach out to give a boost to someone needier that you feel best about your own life, your own good fortune, and the future of all of us. We all need a helping hand every once in a while, and it's nice to have given one ourselves.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Finally Some Helpful Press

There was a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal this week, that actually listed ten reasons TO buy a home. As you can tell by the title, we have come to expect that every article will result in calls from clients who have decided not to go forward with a purchase. Therefore, we were thrilled to get some help from the WSJ.

You would not be surprised by most of the reasons, because you've heard them all before. There were a couple of arguments that were particularly good, however, in the way that they were phrased. One was the perennial issue of whether a buyer should buy before the market hits bottom. All real estate professionals know the answer to that--you cannot predict the bottom, so you should just get somewhere near it and not worry. The article, however, quoted a talking head as saying two years ago that prices had to fall another 17% to reach where they should be, and that the Case-Shiller Index in those two years showed prices down 18%. That's pretty close to the bottom.

The other points I really liked were really variations of the same theme---you get a better home when you buy. That's because better properties get sold and worse properties get rented, but it's also true because you can't (or won't) personalize a rental the way you can or would your own place. It's a version of what I've been saying--that you have to like where you live--but it gives some concrete reasons as to why buying does a better job of providing that.

Low mortgage rates, big inventory, fewer taxes, long-term growth--all of these ideas were listed as well. Let's hope that some of you take the plunge after reading the paper!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Should We Let the Market Fall? Part 2

In my entry yesterday, I blogged about the NYT article talking about what's happening in the current market (very little) and what could or should be done about it. The first issue I discussed was the possibility of a double dip, and whether that would happen. Today I have a suggestion about the type of governmental intervention that might prevent further declines.

All of the efforts to date ($23 billion in tax credits) have been focused on homebuyers, particularly first-time homebuyers. As I have opined before, first-time buyers are the most likely to buy no matter what market conditions might exist at the time they are ready to purchase. Since interest rates are low, and prices have come down somewhat, and since they have nothing to compare those prices to, they should be motivated already. The problem is that there is little well-priced product out there for them to buy, low sales notwithstanding. The inventory lacks homes which are not even being marketed due to current conditions, and many that have been on the market too long and for too much.

Why shouldn't the Federal government consider a one-time tax credit for sellers, maybe as a percentage of the loss in value that they have incurred, or maybe as a credit when they both sell and then buy? Many people would not even qualify, just as many buyers made too much money or bought houses too expensive for the homebuyer credit. Some have lived in their homes for so long that they would never lose money when selling, and some will sell but not purchase again. However, it would be a strong signal from the government that sellers need to lower prices before the market can move again. If that could be accomplished for the same price tag as we incurred giving an incentive to buyers, it might free up the whole sales chain. Buyers who can't buy because they already own a home they can't sell would then trade up or move, and people who just can't stomach not getting what they would have gotten a few years ago might feel that the tax credit made up for that, at least in part. There are many details to be worked out, but something needs to happen, and I don't think that even job creation will change the perception about the current state of real estate without some sort of outside help. Waiting around is costing us all time, money, and sound sleep.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Should We Let the Market Fall?

There's a very interesting article on the front of today's NYT business section about the differing predictions as to future real estate prices, and what to do about the flailing state of demand. Some experts think that real estate has been overvalued for the past couple of decades at least, and that the medium-term future upside will be limited to minor price increases. Those people often believe that we are at the beginning of the dreaded "double dip", and that real property prices will drop again.

Other experts feel that real estate is a luxury good, and that people will spend more on housing if they can. As my most recent prior blog would indicate, I'm in that camp. Especially when you consider the age of the baby boomers, I believe that they will "nest" over the next number of years, spending as much as they can on houses where they feel that they could live in retirement, and where their children will visit them. That would argue for higher values, at least for premium properties. As people spend less on food, they are going to spend their excess income on something, and I'm betting on housing over travel (not as easy as it used to be), cars (not politically correct), and clothing (ditto). Housing is where you can express your individuality without looking like a conspicuous consumer.

If you believe this scenario, then housing will improve as soon as consumer confidence rises and remains higher. For more on governmental intervention, I have an idea about that, too, so tune in next time.