By SIMON CONSTABLE
Wall Street Journal
There might finally be some good news this year about the nation’s dismal housing market. Or, at least, the bad news could stop.
Either way, it will be welcome relief for current homeowners as well as for potential real-estate investors. Reasons to be optimistic have been sadly lacking since the housing bubble burst in 2006.
For sure, last week we learned the widely watched S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index fell 1% in December, its fifth straight decline. The index tracks 20 major markets.
But that figure belies real reasons to be optimistic, according to some experts. If they are right, it might make sense to jump into real estate. The trick is avoiding getting burned again, and it doesn’t necessarily mean owning a home.
First, let’s recap the economic signs a bottom is close.
Houses Are a Good Deal
Housing is the most affordable it has been in decades, according to analysts at Moody’s Analytics. They don’t just look at house prices. They also look at incomes.
Nationally, the cost of a house is the equivalent of about 19 months of total pay for an average family, the lowest level in 35 years. Prices usually average close to two years’ pay, although that varies nationally.
At the peak, midway through the last decade, a home in Los Angeles cost the equivalent of 4.5 years’ pay. The average price has since fallen to just over two years’ income now. That’s well below its pre-bubble average of 2.6 years. This means average Los Angeles homes are cheaper in “real terms” than they were typically during the period 1989 through 2003.
The opposite is true around the Washington beltway, where it will take 26 months of pay to buy a home, versus the historical norm of 22 months.
Take Miami again. Last year, more than half of all transactions were made entirely in cash, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. That compares with 13% of deals in the last quarter of 2006, the height of the bubble. Similarly, in Phoenix 42% of sales in 2010 went to all-cash buyers, up threefold since 2008.