Has Housing Hit the Ceiling?

On your mark. Get set. Buy! And so the real estate market has gone in recent years. With record-low interest rates and record-high new home developments, consumers have been putting the pedal to the metal to purchase a pad of their own.

But it's a new year and a new race, and everyone from investors to lenders to homebuyers want to know: Is it full speed ahead for the housing market?

Almost, according to a survey of Americans' home-buying plans conducted earlier this month. Global marketing research firm Ipsos-Insight found that when it comes to real estate, consumers will only tap the brakes in 2004. Among survey respondents, 12% say they plan to purchase a home this year, just a slight dip from last year's record high, according to Ipsos. Nearly half of those shoppers are first-time homebuyers. And then there are the other money issues of home ownership -- home equity loans and refinancing -- which are still hot to the touch, judging by traffic to our Home Center.

Of those planning to buy, more than four in 10 say they'll purchase a newly constructed home. That's got to be good news for the National Association of Home Builders, which predicted a 3% decline in new home stats this year. Still, that's hardly a black eye, considering that last year 1.84 million new homes went up. Also smiling are homebuilders like Lennar (NYSE: LEN  ) and KB Home (NYSE: KBH  ) , which posted 30% and 27% gains, respectively, in fiscal first-quarter home orders.

It all bodes well for 2004. But as a consumer, does it really matter? We've long preached the benefits on buy-and-hold investing. In Buying the Bubble, Paul Elliott implores consumers to do the same when it comes to housing and avoid the sting of market timing and speculation. Instead, base your home-buying decision on more down-to-earth and personal data. While a home is certainly your biggest "investment," it's also the place you hang your hat and watch the talking heads debate the real estate bubble.

Tomorrow on, Rick Munarriz offers a more skeptical view about the future of the housing market and will give ideas on how investors should react.

Dayana Yochim does not own a home or any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

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