Is the Real Estate Market Going to Crash?

Know the Warning Signs and What You Should Do Now

Image by © The Balance 2019 

Most Americans are concerned that the real estate market is going to crash. A recent survey found that 57% agreed that there would be a "housing bubble and price correction" by 2020. As a result, 83% of them believe it's a good time to sell.

Five Warning Signs of a Crash

There are plenty of signs that the housing market could be about to crash. These are rising home prices, fewer affordable homes, warnings, an increase of unregulated mortgages, and a greater number of flippers.

Most crashes occur when an asset bubble has popped. One sign of a potential bubble is rising home prices. The national average home price hit a record high of $202,672 in 2018. This was 10% higher than the 2006 record high of $183,488, according to the Case Shiller Home Price Index. Similarly, the S&P Homebuilders Select Industry Index has risen 13.32% since 2009. It tracks the stock prices of homebuilders.

Home prices in Washington, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, were at least 10% higher than sustainable levels, according to CoreLogic.

The Housing Bellwether Barometer is an index of homebuilders and mortgage companies. In 2017, it skyrocketed like it did in 2004 and 2005. That's according to its creator, James Stack of Stack Financial Management, in an interview with Marketwatch. Stack used the indicator to predict the 2008 financial crisis.

At the same time, affordable housing plummeted. In 2010, 112% of rental units across the country were affordable for low-income households. By 2016, that had dropped to just 4.3%. The shortage is the worst in cities where home prices have soared. For example, Colorado's stock of affordable rentals fell from 32.4% to only 7.5% since 2010. This happened after it became one of the states where pot is legal.

In March 2017, William Poole, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, in an op-ed warned of another subprime crisis. He warned that 35% of Fannie Mae's loans required mortgage insurance. That's about the level in 2006. In some ways, today's loans are worse. Fannie and Freddie lowered their definition of subprime from 660 to 620. The banks are no longer calling borrowers with scores between 620 and 660 subprime. Poole was the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas who warned of the subprime crisis in 2005. 

Another concern is the increase in unregulated mortgage brokers. In 2018, they originated 52% of U.S. mortgages. That's more than the 48% of mortgages the sector originated in 2007. Five of the 10 largest mortgage lenders are not banks. They aren't as regulated as banks. That makes them more vulnerable to collapse if the housing market softens again.

In 2016, 5.7% of all home sales were bought for quick resale. These "flip" homes were renovated and sold in less than a year. Attom Data Solutions reported that's the highest percentage since 2006, during the last boom.

Two Reasons Why Housing Has Slowed

New home sales fell 24% between November 2017 and October 2018. The last time this happened was in 2005 according to research by Neil Irwin in The New York Times.

At first, home prices didn't fall. Instead, they gradually slowed their increase. Many home sellers were disappointed they couldn't get the same high prices their neighbors got a year earlier. They were reluctant to lower their prices, and so sales slowed.

One reason for the slowdown is because average incomes haven't kept up with home prices. Per capita income rose 25% between 2011 and 2018. Home prices rose 48% during that period.

Another reason is higher interest rates. The Federal Reserve began raising the benchmark fed funds rate in 2015. At first, it spurred demand as homebuyers sought out mortgages while rates were still low. Then the demand dried up.

In 2019, housing prices softened. The Median Sales Price for all homes hit a peak of $337,900 in the fourth quarter of 2017. The price fell 8.4% to $320,300 as of the second quarter of 2019, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. If prices had kept up with inflation, they would have risen to $350,071. Housing prices declined because mortgage costs increased. The Fed raised its benchmark fed funds rate from 1.5% to 2.5% during that time.

In July 2019, the Fed lowered the current fed funds rate to 2.25%. If it keeps lowering rates, expect the housing market to rebound.

So Now Will Home Prices Crash?

Despite slowing sales, homebuilders continue to request more new home permits. In 2017, they were granted 1.3 million permits, according to the U.S. Census. That's lower than the average number in the 1990s.

But it's 6.2% higher than in 2016. That's less of an increase than in 2015 when they received 12.4% more permits. This increase is higher than in the years preceding the financial crisis. Between 2001 and 2005, permits increased just 8% per year on average.

They went wild in 2012 when they got 33% more permits than the prior year. They received 19% more permits in 2013. But they were making up for severe losses incurred during the crash. Housing permits fell from 1.4 million in 2007 to only 583,000 in 2009, a 58% decline.

On the whole, builders have not oversaturated the market as they did before the financial crisis. As a result, it's likely home prices will not fall as they did during the crash.

The 2008 Housing Market Crash

People who were caught in the 2008 crash are spooked that the 2017 bubble and subsequent slowdown will lead to another crash. But that crash was caused by forces that are no longer present. Credit default swaps insured derivatives such as mortgage-backed securities. In addition, hedge fund managers created a huge demand for these supposedly risk-free securities. That created demand for the mortgages that backed them.

To meet this demand for mortgages, banks and mortgage brokers offered home loans to just about anyone. They created the subprime mortgage crisis in 2006. 

As many unqualified buyers entered the market, demand soared. Many people bought homes as investments to sell as prices kept rising. They exhibited irrational exuberance, a hallmark of any asset bubble.

In 2006, homebuilders finally caught up with demand. When supply outpaced demand, housing prices started to fall. That burst the asset bubble. 

In September 2006, the National Association of Realtors reported that home prices had fallen for the first time in 11 years. Inventory was high, providing a 7.5-month supply. In November, the Commerce Department revealed new home permits were 28% lower than in 2005.

But the Fed ignored these warnings. It thought the economy was strong enough to pull housing out of its slump. It pointed to strong employment, low inflation, and increased consumer spending. It also promised to lower interest rates. That would give the economy enough liquidity to fuel growth.

The Fed underestimated the size and impact of the mortgage-backed securities market.

Banks had hired "quant jocks" to create these new securities. They wrote computer programs that sorted packages of mortgages into high-risk and low-risk bundles. The high-risk bundles paid more but were more likely to default. The low-risk bundles were safer but paid less.

These bundles held unknown amounts of subprime mortgages. Banks didn't care about the credit-worthiness of borrowers because they resold the mortgages on the secondary market.

The ticking time bomb was the millions of interest-only loans. These allowed borrowers to get lower monthly payments. But these mortgage rates reset at a higher level after three years. Many of these homeowners could not pay the mortgage. Then housing prices fell and they couldn't sell their homes for a profit. As a result, they defaulted.

When times were good, it didn't matter. Everyone bought the high-risk bundles because they gave a higher return. As the housing market declined, everyone knew that the products were losing value. Since no one understood them, the resale value of these derivatives was unclear.

Last but not least, many of the purchasers of these MBS were not just other banks. They were individual investors, pension funds, and hedge funds. That spread the risk throughout the economy. Hedge funds used these derivatives as collateral to borrow money. That created higher returns in a bull market but magnified the impact of any downturn. The Securities and Exchange Commission did not regulate hedge funds, so no one knew how much of it was going on.

The Fed didn't realize a collapse was brewing until March 2007.

It realized that hedge fund housing losses could threaten the economy. Throughout the summer, banks became unwilling to lend to each other. They were afraid that they would receive bad MBS in return. Bankers didn't know how much bad debt they had on their books. No one wanted to admit it. If they did, then their credit rating would be lowered. Then, their stock price would fall, and they would be unable to raise more funds to stay in business. The stock market see-sawed throughout the summer, as market-watchers tried to figure out how bad things were.

By August, credit had become so tight that the Fed loaned banks $75 billion. It wanted to restore liquidity long enough for the banks to write down their losses and get back to the business of lending money. Instead, banks stopped lending to almost everybody.

The downward spiral was underway. As banks cut back on mortgages, housing prices fell further. That sent more borrowers into default, which increased the bad loans on banks' books. That made the banks lend even less.

Nine Reasons Why a Housing Crash Isn't Imminent

There are many differences between the housing market in 2005 and the current market. In 2005, subprime loans totaled more than $620 billion and made up 20% of the mortgage market. In 2015, they totaled $56 billion and comprised 5% of the market.

Banks have raised lending standards. According to CoreLogic’s Housing Credit Index, loans originated in 2016 were among the highest quality originated in the last 15 years. In October 2009, the average FICO score was 686, according to Fair Isaac. In 2001, the average score was 490 to 510.

Tighter lending standards have made a difference in the "flip" market. Lenders only finance 55% of the home's value. The "flipper" has to come up with the rest. During the subprime crisis, banks lent 80% or more.

The number of homes sold today is 20% below the pre-crash peak. There's only a four-month supply of homes available for sale. As a result, about 64% of Americans own their own homes, compared with 68% in 2007.

Home sales are lower because the recession clobbered young people's ability to start a career and buy homes. Faced with a weak job market, many furthered their education. As a result, they are now burdened with school loans. That makes it less likely they can save enough to buy a home. That will keep demand down.

Home prices have outpaced income. The average income-to-housing cost ratio is 30%. In some metro areas, it's skyrocketed to 40% or 50%. Unfortunately, metro areas are also where the jobs are. That forces young people to pay more for rent to be close to a job that doesn't pay enough to buy a house. Around 32% of home sales today are going to first-time homebuyers, compared to 40% historically, says the National Association of Realtors. Typically, this buyer is 32, earns $72,000, and pays $182,500 for a home. A two-income couple pays $208,500 on average.

Homeowners are not taking as much equity out of their homes. Home equity rose to $85 billion in 2006. It collapsed to less than $10 billion in 2010. It remained there until 2015. By 2017, it had only risen to $14 billion. Obamacare is one reason for that. Bankruptcy filings have fallen 50% since the Affordable Care Act was passed. In 2010, 1.5 million people filed. In 2016, only 770,846 did. 

Some people point out that national housing prices have exceeded their 2006 peak. But once they are adjusted for 11 years of inflation, they are only at the 2004 level. Between 2012 and 2017, home prices rose 6.5% a year on average. Between 2002 and 2006, they rose 7.5% annually. In 2005, they skyrocketed 16%. 

Homebuilders focus on high-end homes. New homes are larger and more expensive. The average size of a new single-family home is almost 2,700 square feet. That compares to 2,500 square feet in 2006.

Five Conditions That Could Cause a Collapse

A warning sign for the real estate market is that the yield curve on U.S. Treasury notes has become inverted. That's when the interest rates for short-term Treasurys become higher than long-term yields. Normal short-term yields are lower because investors don't require a high return to invest for less than a year. When that inverts, it means investors think the short-term is riskier than the long-term. That plays havoc with the mortgage market and often signals a recession. The yield curve inverted before the recessions of 2008, 2000, 1991, and 1981.

The Trump tax reform plan could be having a negative impact on housing. The plan raised the standard deduction, so many Americans no longer need to itemize. As a result, they can’t take advantage of the mortgage interest deduction. It acts like a $71 billion federal subsidy to the housing market. The real estate industry opposed the tax plan. 

Real estate markets could collapse in coastal regions vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that 170 U.S. coastal cities and towns will be “chronically inundated” in 20 years. Another study found that 300,000 coastal properties will be flooded 26 times a year by 2045. The value of that real estate is $136 billion. By 2100, that number will rise to $1 trillion. At most risk are homes in Miami, New York's Long Island, and the San Francisco Bay area.

Flooding has hit U.S. coastal towns three to nine times more often than they did 50 years ago. In Miami, Florida, the ocean floods the streets during high tide. Harvard researchers found that home prices in lower-lying areas of Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach are rising more slowly than the rest of Florida. A study using Zillow found that properties at risk of rising sea levels sell at a 7% discount to comparable properties. By 2030, Miami Beach homes could pay $17 million in higher property taxes due to flooding by 2030. By 2100, that could rise to $760 million, according to the Miami Herald. Other vulnerable cities are Charleston, S.C., Atlantic City, N.J., Boston, Mass., and Annapolis, Md.

Most of the property in these cities are financed by municipal bonds or home mortgages. Their destruction will hurt the investors and depress the bond market. Markets could collapse in these regions, especially after severe storms.

The real estate market could collapse if banks and hedge funds returned to investing in risky financial products. These derivatives were a major cause of the financial crisis. Banks sliced up mortgages and resold them in mortgage-backed securities. These securities were a bigger business than the mortgages themselves. So, banks sold mortgages to just about anyone. They needed them to support the derivatives. They sliced them up so that bad mortgages were hidden in bundles with good ones. Then when borrowers defaulted, all the derivatives were suspected of being bad. This phenomenon caused the demise of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.

Higher interest rates have caused a collapse in the past. They make loans more expensive. That slows home building and decreases its supply. It also slows lending, which cuts back on demand. Overall, a slow and steady interest rate increase won't create a catastrophe.

It's true that higher interest rates preceded the housing collapse in 2006. Many borrowers then had interest-only loans and adjustable-rate mortgages. Unlike a conventional loan, the interest rates rise along with the fed funds rate. Many also had introductory teaser rates that reset after three years. When the Federal Reserve raised rates at the same time they reset, borrowers found they could no longer afford the payments. Home prices fell at the same time, so these mortgage-holders couldn't make the payments or sell the house. As a result, default rates rose.

The history of the fed funds rate reveals that the Fed raised rates too fast between 2004 and 2006. The rate was 1% in June 2004 and doubled to 2.25% by December. It doubled again to 4.25% by December 2005. Six months later, the rate was 5.25%. The Fed raised rates at a much slower pace since 2015.

When Will the Housing Market Crash Again?

The next market crash will occur in 2026, according to Harvard Extension School professor Teo Nicholas. He bases that on a study by economist Homer Hoyt. Real estate booms-and-busts have followed an 18-year cycle since 1800. The only exceptions were World War II and stagflation

In 2017, Nicholas said the real estate market was still in the expansion phase. The next phase, hypersupply, wouldn't occur unless rental vacancy rates begin to increase. If that occurred while the Fed raises interest rates, it could cause a crash. 

How to Protect Yourself from a Crash

If you're among the majority of Americans who are worried, then there are seven things you can do to protect yourself from a real estate crash. 

Buy a House to Live In, Not to Flip

Two-thirds of the homes lost in the financial crisis were second and third homes. When the sale price dropped below the mortgage, the owners walked away. They kept their homes but lost their investments.

Get a Fixed-Rate Mortgage

If this means you can only afford a smaller home, so be it. That's better than taking a risk and losing it later on.

If you have a variable rate mortgage, try to refinance to a fixed-rate.

If You Get a Variable Rate Mortgage, Find Out What the Interest Rate Will Be When It Resets
If you can't refinance to a fixed-rate mortgage, then calculate the future monthly payment when your interest rate resets. Make sure you can afford to pay it with your current income.

Take the difference between that future payment and what you are paying today with the lower interest rate and save it. That way you will have the funds to pay your mortgage if your income falls. 

Buy the Worst House in the Best Area You Can Afford

Good neighborhoods aren't going to suffer as much in the next downturn as poorer areas. They will also bounce back quicker. This will improve your chances of reselling later on.

Make Sure Your House Has at Least Three Bedrooms
If your home has three bedrooms, it will attract families if you need to resell. Two bedrooms or less will only attract retirees and maybe some small families.

The Best Way to Protect Yourself Is With a Well-Diversified Portfolio of Assets
Diversification means a balanced mix of stocks, bonds, commodities, and equity in your home. Most financial planners don't include home equity as an asset, but they should. It's the biggest asset most people own.

To Limit the Damage of a Real Estate Collapse, Buy the Smallest Home You Can Reasonably Live In

Looking to secure some capital? Don't be afraid to invest. Boost your investments in stocks, bonds, and commodities so they equal or exceed your home equity. If there is an asset bubble in housing, don't succumb to the temptation to refinance and take out the equity. Instead, revisit your asset allocation to make sure that it is still balanced. 

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