We Won’t Get Fooled Again… Or Will We?

Conundrum on a gloomy, rainy afternoon. 

Housing is more affordable. But for whom? Which makes the first statement questionable, if not untrue.

Whether the statement–Housing is more affordable–is valid or not is a big question. Many of housing’s economists say that the degree to which housing affordability reverts to longtime norms–such as house price-to-household income ratios and house price compared with market rate rents–will tell when the housing correction is complete. Once the house price correction is complete, and norms are restored, the assumption is the housing economy will have troughed out, and transactions, absorptions, and an efficient market will resume.

People will buy because it will be the time to buy. But is that asking too much of an economy whose consumer sector–the engine that could…once–is under such duress as it is?

We like Irvine, Calif.-based real estate consultant John Burns; he’s smart, and he can be a help to clients on both sides of the bid-ask chasm that has paralyzed the central nervous system of real estate in the United States.

We also like CNBC real estate correspondent Diana Olick for her standup job of reporting on the housing landscape from both Wall Street and Main Street.

What’s more, we like good news, just as much as the next guy.

These three stars aligned today, but we’re not comforted.

First, John Burns released data that backed up his lead assertion. “We have the best housing affordability in 38 years…” That’s 1971, folks.

Burns trots out chart porn to illustrate the drama of his assertion.

Source: John Burns Real Estate Consulting

Source: John Burns Real Estate Consulting

Here’s Burns’ commentary on the data.

The monthly cost of homeownership has fallen 43% from the peak in this cycle, with more than half of that due to the decline in price, and the remainder due to the decline in mortgage rates and increase in incomes. The median-income household, which earns $52,800 per year, only needs 25% of their income to buy the median-priced single-family home of $164,600. In July 2006, that ratio was 44%.

Those of us who are in the housing business know that the monthly payment is far more important than the price for entry-level buyers. Entry-level buyers compare the cost of homeownership to the cost of renting and have no idea what a Case-Shiller index means. Once the word gets out that homeownership is less expensive than renting, which is now also true in 54 of the 88 markets where we track this information, we expect buying activity to increase substantially (even in a horrible economy).

CNBC’s Diana Olick caught wind of Burns’ data and smelled a good news headline, which all of us wish for desperately. See earlier Wishful Sinful post. Here’s her take today in her blog: “Yes, You Can Afford A House.” Her evidence of the validity of that claim? John Burns, of course.

I know we’ve been saying over and over that home affordability is soaring to record levels, but a report today from John Burns Real Estate Consulting really puts it into hard numbers, which I thought I’d share.

Let’s start with the big number: the cost of homeownership has fallen 43 percent from the peak in this cycle, with more than half of that due to the decline in home prices and the rest due to lower mortgage rates and increases in income.

Still, realty reality is what it is, not some spin that gets a fleeting instant of attention and then goes away like so much in this throwaway society.

Affordability, by definition, is a real-world term, not a theoretical one.

For instance, what happens when you add home price depreciation rates to your mortgage rates to figure out your real monthly interest rate?

This is the real world way that Chris Flanagan, Asset Backed Securities Research chief at JP Morgan, advises us to look at affordability. Flanagan notes that that by adding the FHFA index’s current 7% YOY decline to a 5% mortgage rate, “real” mortgage rates are closer to 12%, which results in affordability being near the lowest level in the last 30 years.

The other issue is your cost-to-household income ratio. Just as the “V” in loan-to-value has been destabilized by deflationary forces, so too have household income data points been corrupted by galloping job loss trends, which also corrupt consumer confidence.

Fact is, the single most important data point for housing and real estate people to watch is industrial absorptions. This is where the rubber hits the road in non-cyclical job formation that will need to happen to turn the tide on real estate across the board.

All the jobs formed during the W Bush administration have been wiped out. Structural challenges with non-cyclicals that pre-dated the jobs and economic run up of the 2002-2007 period continue. We’re going to need to see non-cyclical industry sectors get well–and household incomes to normalize–before we’ll see the term “affordability” mean anything in the housing market.

We like Burns, Olick, and good news. But we don’t believe them here.

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