Back in June 2006, when the housing market peaked, the prospect of a five-year national housing bust seemed unimaginable to most people. And yet here we are, with the latest Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller index showing that prices hit new bear-market lows, falling back to 2002 levels nationally and to 1990s levels in some battered regions.
Despite all the gloom, however, there are growing indications that it is a good time to buy. Mortgage rates, which fell to 4.55% for the week ending June 2, according to Freddie Mac, are near 50-year lows. Homes have become more affordable than they have been in years: According to Moody’s Analytics, the ratio of home prices to income is now 20.9% lower than the 15-year average through 2010, and 12.5% lower than the 1989-2004 average. A historic glut of homes, meanwhile, has created a buyer’s market: There were about 15 million vacant homes in the U.S. last year, according to John Burns Real Estate ConsultingInc.—some 3.1 million more than normal.
Such conditions might not last long. Moody’s Analytics predicts that the number of distressed sales will begin to fall in 2013, and that prices will begin to edge upward then. Home building is at a virtual standstill, so the supply overhang isn’t likely to get much worse. Meanwhile, demographic indicators such as “household formation”—the number of new households each year—are on the rise, and promise to take a bite out of the glut in coming years.