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Keepin' It Real Estate: Housing Recovery? What Housing Recovery?


Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.

This week, 2 data points led optimistic market-watchers to declare the bottom in the housing is nigh: Indeed, one widely read trader-writer proclaimed, "The oversupply of housing that so plagues the market at present will be a figment of our memory a few months hence."

The first: On Monday, the National Association of Realtors said existing home sales jumped 5.1% in February compared to the previous month, largely due to the high number of foreclosures being dumped onto the market by big banks like JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Bank of America (BAC) and Wells Fargo (WFC).

While indicative of buyers gingerly dipping their toes back into the market, existing home sales are still down 13.4% from a year ago.

The second: On Wednesday, the Commerce Department released data on February new home sales which showed a similar trend: Transactions bounced 4.7% from January, but remain a whopping 41% below sales this time last year. Nevertheless, shares of beleaguered homebuilders like Centex (CTX) and Lennar (LEN) had stellar performances this week, capping a nearly 100% gain since the beginning of the month.

Prices, however, continue to slide for both existing and new homes. And while median (and average, for that matter) price data is skewed to the downside due to the mix of homes sold in a given period -- in this case, more cheap houses than expensive ones -- property values remain in a decidedly downward trend.

But since transactions typically find a bottom prior to prices, the number of people who believe prices should stabilize in the near future is growing.

Examining the data, unfortunately, tells a different story. Below is a chart produced by my firm, Cirios Real Estate, showing home prices and sales transactions in for the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. The East Bay is a fairly representative sample of California housing markets: A little high-end, a little middle-class and a little low-rent all mixed in.

Click to enlarge

The red line shows average home prices, while the blue line shows sales transactions, as measured by their change from a year ago. Notice how, even as sales have spiked from the previous year, prices continue to plunge.

Two things jump out at me on this graph (aside from the massive increase in transactions and precipitous decline in prices):

First, transactions began to ramp up as prices moved down toward levels where borrowers could get government-backed loans to buy homes. That means Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE) and the FHA have financed a whole swath of homes in the past 18 months that are now severely underwater.

Second, transactions bottomed in September 2007, not long after the market peaked. 18 months have passed and prices have dropped more than 50% since that time.

With that in mind, the current "euphoria" over housing data -- after a single month-over-month increase in sales, when year-over-year measures remain well behind even last year's weak totals -- seems a bit premature.

This is not to say prices will never stabilize, or that increased sales are a bad thing. In fact, the more sales we have, the quicker price discovery happens and the faster a true bottom can be found. Nor is this some proclamation that this part of California is a perfect proxy for home prices nationwide.

But given the backlog of foreclosed homes sitting on the books of the major American banks, continued price declines across the country and tight mortgage market conditions, calls for the devouring of supply by voracious home buyers causing an imminent housing bottom is downright premature.

To be sure, we may be one step closer to a housing bottom, but that's one step on a very, very long path.

In memory of our fallen friend and trusted colleague, Bennet Sedacca, 100% of the donations made to the RP Foundation through April will be channeled to philanthropic endeavors consistent with the RP mission, working closely with the Sedacca clan in the distribution of those funds. We thank you kindly for your support as we strive to effect positive change in the lives of children.
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