THE sudden rise in home prices suggests that the psychology of the market has shifted substantially. But what should we expect in the months ahead? Not necessarily that we’re entering a new housing boom. To a large extent, where we’re heading depends on what home buyers are thinking.
Some clues are found in the annual home-buyer surveys that Karl Case, the Wellesley economics professor, and I have run for years. For the surveys, we canvas recent home buyers in four cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Boston; the surveys are now being conducted under the auspices of the Yale School of Management. We have just received the 2009 results, with responses from June and July.
This year’s survey coincides nicely with the upturn in home prices, the sharpest change in direction we have ever seen. The data show that the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 10-City Composite Home Price Index for the United States rose 3.6 percent between April and July. While that is not a whopping increase, it followed a decline of 4.8 percent in the previous period, between January and April.
The suddenness of this shift surprised me. In my column in June, I wrote that home prices might well continue to decline for years. As of that time, the S.& P./Case-Shiller price index had fallen every month for almost three years. Add to that the prospect of continuing high unemployment and a weak economy for years to come, and the prospects for home prices did not seem rosy.
But the new data are startling. Since the indexes began in 1987, the closest parallel to such a change came at the conclusion of the last housing bust, at the end of the 1990-91 recession. Home prices rose 2.3 percent from April to July 1991 after having fallen 2.1 percent from January to April that year. By July 1996, five years after that “turnaround,” home prices were down 0.6 percent from their July 1991 level, and down 13.8 percent in inflation-adjusted terms.
Could the more extreme recent shift mean that home prices will just keep rising this time? Here is where our new survey results are helpful.
We looked at both the long- and short-term attitudes of home buyers. In our survey, we ask, “On average over the next 10 years, how much do you expect the value of your property to change each year?” The average answer among 311 respondents in 2009 was an increase of 11.2 percent. The median response — with half above, half below — was 5 percent, also high. That sounds rather like bubble thinking.
For a home buyer who borrows 90 percent of the money to acquire a house, an appreciation rate of 11.2 percent offers an investment bonanza. By putting a small amount of money down, investors stand to make a large gain if home prices climb. That is the power of leveraging. Recently, however, home buyers have also experienced the unpleasant consequences of leverage when home prices fall. Investing in a home during the wild past few years has been like gambling in a casino: You can leave with riches or empty pockets.
In our survey data from one year earlier, when prices were falling at an annual rate of nearly 20 percent, buyers were still expressing long-term optimism. Then, the average answer to the question about expected yearly increases in home values was 9.5 percent a year, with a median of 5 percent — high figures indeed for that time. The bubble thinking is not new.
Those long-term expectations may not have changed much in character, but short-term expectations certainly have. In the survey, we also ask, “How much of a change do you expect there to be in the value of your home over the next 12 months?” Here, the average answer for June-July 2009 was a 2.3 percent rise, versus a negative 0.4 percent a year earlier. That was a dramatic change.
Another survey question is this: “If you think that present trends will not continue forever, what do you think will stop them?” Respondents were asked to answer in their own words. In 2008, when the current trend was unambiguously down, people nonetheless made it clear that they thought a housing recovery would come as the recession ended, with a new president after the election, and after home prices have come back down. What has changed in 2009 is that they suddenly see this anticipated scenario as actually playing out.
An additional question pertains to short-run considerations of market timing. We have been asking respondents whether they agree with this statement: “I bought now because I felt that I had to even though I might have done better financially if I had waited.” During the housing boom in 2004, only 17.9 percent agreed with that statement. That figure doubled, to 36.7 percent, when prices were dropping fast in 2008, and now has come back to 24.8 percent.
WHAT should we conclude? Given the abnormality of the economic environment, the sudden turn in the housing market probably reflects a new home-buyer emphasis on market timing. For years, people have been bulls for the long term. The change has been in their short-term thinking. The latest answers suggest that people think the price slide is over, so there is no longer such a good reason to wait to buy. And so they cause an upward blip in prices.
At the moment, it appears that the extreme ups and downs of the housing market have turned many Americans into housing speculators. Many people are still playing a leverage game, watching various economic indicators as well as the state of federal bailout programs — including the $8,000 first-time home-buyer tax credit that is currently scheduled to expire before Dec. 1 — in an effort to time their home-buying decisions. The sudden turn could signal a new housing boom, but is more likely just a sign of a period of higher short-run price volatility.
Robert J. Shiller is professor of economics and finance at Yale and co-founder and chief economist of MacroMarkets LLC.