. just listen .
It was only a few weeks back that I suggested home shoppers not believe everything they hear from the oft-quoted, so-called Experts regarding the housing market. There was a pretty straightforward reason. Despite much evidence to the contrary, the people with a vested interest in continuing to see prices rise -- like the outgoing Fed chief, Alan Greenspan -- kept telling the soundbite-seeking press that there was no "bubble." Regional bubblets, maybe. Well, not even bubblets. Areas of higher enthusiasm, really. Everything was just fine. Nothing to see here. Not then, anyway. Not way back in . July.
In that fabled long, long ago, another oft-quoted Expert on the State of Housing, David Lereah, chief economist from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), described the drop in existing-home sales as follows: "This is a big number any way you slice it, and housing is continuing to stimulate the overall economy."
He then went on to preach the gospel of homeowner wealth, on his way to reassuring everyone that although prices might no longer climb at double-digit rates, they surely wouldn't fall. As he put it, "This is spreading the wealth of housing returns, with a natural easing of appreciation in areas following a period of extraordinary price growth." Easing of appreciation. Whew. We can handle that, right?
Heck, as recently as the end of last month, our soon-to-be Fed chief, Ben S. Bernanke, still denied the existence of a housing bubble, attributing the 25% inflation in home prices over the past two years (in the face of stagnating wages and rising inflation) to "strong economic fundamentals." Maybe he just didn't want to start his tenure as America's top economic policy maker by sounding like a Negative Nelly.
And now it's time to . Change! That! Tune!
What a difference a few weeks can make. Now, even the NAR guy whose job it is to reassure you that all is well, that it's a good idea to get on out there and pay up for a home -- thereby earning his constituency a continuing stream of fat, 6% fees -- even this guy is starting to change his tune.
This week, NAR economist Lereah told TheWall Street Journal that "the air is coming out of the balloons." The balloons that didn't exist a few weeks back? I guess. In fairness, he could hardly say otherwise.
After all, recent earnings calls from homebuilders like Centex
Dare we ask, "Why didn't all you Wise Experts say something about this six months ago?" Dare we? Perhaps we daren't. After all, this chain of events has been pretty tough to figure. Only real experts could have seen this sort of thing coming.
Just who are the experts?
By real experts, I mean anyone with eyeballs, common sense, a memory longer than 10 years, or just a mastery of seventh-grade algebra. Anyone, in short, who isn't panicking to get into a home and doesn't depend on our new national pastime -- home-swapping -- for income or professional reputation.
I think that even my teacher wife's greenest math students are expert enough to have seen where this has been heading. Even junior high schoolers can work the equation and see what happens when prices have risen to the point that the only way a large percentage of buyers can purchase is by signing on for gimmick-depressed payments -- excuse me, "affordable, interest-only ARMs."
Even Booger Bob -- the kid who picks his ear with the sharp end of his mechanical pencil and wipes the residue on the soles of his shoes -- even ear-pickin', wax-flickin' Booger Bob could have told you that once the interest rates creep upward, and/or real wages stagnate, and/or "core inflation" begins to bite buyers in the tuckus, putting a lid on monthly "affordability," the only variable left to move, if you want that home to move, is the home price itself. And it's gotta move down, eventually. And if it doesn't move down, well, people stop buying, right?
Take a look around
It's not hard for me to notice the evidence of decreasing demand for the dream home in my own (rented for a reason) backyard. The late 1950s and '60s, 700-square-foot, shag and Formica junkers in the neighborhood across the road from me had been fetching up to $500,000 a piece, up from about $350,000 a year and a half ago. These days, they sit on the market for weeks or months, just like the $680,000 townhomes closer by, the ones hemmed in by a multicolored moat of shiny Acuras, BMWs, and SUVs, which, oddly enough, seem to host an increasing number of hardware-store "for sale" placards in their rear windows. And there are more and more of these signs of the times. I count them up every time I take the dog to the park and ponder while he brings me tennis balls.
And I wonder how many of the signs that come down do so because the property was sold, or because the listing agent told the sellers to take it off the market, a common tactic to refresh the sale. Remember, part of the magic of the recent fairy-tale housing market has been creating a sense of urgency, of need, of demand. No one wants a house that's been for sale for two months!
Houses that spend too much time on the auction block are as appealing as afternoon tea with the poor old cat lady who lives next door. (It's that kind of neighborhood.) Take 'er off the market for a while, then put it back on. That way, prospective buyers think that it's only been available for a week or two, and maybe, just maybe, we can get them to sign a contract.
That's a big change from a year ago, when, if you wanted to take part in the American Dream and start "building equity," you were forced to put a bid on these things the day they were listed, with no inspection, no home guarantee, and an automatic escalation clause to boot. I actually took part in one of these fiascos a while back, and not a day goes by that I don't thank the stars that there was some poor shlub out there who threw caution further to the wind than we did, and bid the house up more than 15% over the asking price, knocking us out of the running, and knocking us back to our senses.
The trickle down
How this will all shake out further down the economic food chain, I'm not going to hazard a guess. I'm not an Expert. I'm not privy to such Deep Thoughts. Most of the Experts, or at least the ones talking to the press, seem to claim that (or hope that?) a "soft landing" is on the way. I'd like to believe in that. It sounds so comforting, and I do keep a lot of my investment dollars in retail stocks. For that reason, I hope that any impending financial pinch won't put the kibosh on spending at places like Tiffany
But I'm not so sure the Experts are on the ball with this "soft landing" stuff, either. In addition to warnings from some homebuilders that next year's results aren't going to be as peachy keen as originally thought, the just-released new home start numbers for October show that they may just have been understating the difference. These show a 5.6% drop, double what the very Wise Experts were predicting. Is our landing already getting less soft?
Maybe we should ask the experts at the Fed, or the National Association of Realtors, and everywhere else, "Just what is it that happens to home prices when the free money becomes less free, and that panicky run to 'get into the market, no matter what it costs,' comes grinding to a halt?" "What happens when the 'wealth of housing returns' goes flat, or even negative?" "Will housing continue 'stimulating the economy?' "
But maybe the final question should be, "Why didn't you talk more about this a few months ago?"
For related Foolishness:
- Look behind the housing bubble babble.
- Bubble? You bet. But only Fools seemed concerned.
- Scratch that -- there were others who were saying "whoa," but they were experts with a little "e."
Need assistance doing the math on a home buy . or not? Our Home Center can help you make the decision.
Seth Jayson is prepared for the naysayers. At the time of publication, he had no artificially inflated home equity, and no positions in any company mentioned here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.