Forecast: 100% Chance of Uncertainty

In a recent article published on September 18 in Forbes Magazine, “Where Home Prices are Hitting Bottom,” author Francesca Levy attempts to make sense out of recently compiled housing price data produced by a Mountain View research firm, Altosresearch.com, in effect trying to explain where and how different Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) would be hitting “bottom.”  The data focused on whether the number of homes selling at a discount had declined or held steady.  Presumably, if the number of homes selling at a discount was declining, the argument could be made that the housing market in that specific MSA was close to the “bottom” — and a signal to investors to buy.

Four days previously, Ms. Levy had authored another article in Forbes, entitled “Where Home Prices are Likely to Rise.”   In that article, Ms. Levy reported on a housing price forecast produced by Moody’s Economy.com.  As reported, Moody’s calculations were based on long-term demographic and economic fundamentals, changes in income and population, and supply and demand.  Overall, the prediction was for a nationwide 16.08% decrease in prices by the end of the year, but by 2014, prices “will have nearly reverted to their pre-2009 state.”

For San Jose, the article says that the five-year forecast calls for a 23.04% jump in prices; however, that will follow another 25.14% decrease within the next year!  Housing markets in Texas will not see much of a climb, but then they also won’t experience much of a decrease.

As I’ve fondly quoted Yogi Berra:  “Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.”  The Forbes articles make for interesting reading, and the online graphics are impressive.  But the “small print” caveats continue to provide the harsh reality check.  No one knows the full extent of the number of homes that will go into foreclosure, whether Congress will extend (or increase) the first-time homebuyer’s tax credit, scheduled to expire on November 30 of this year, and certainly no one knows if the banks will relax credit and start making loans again.  FHA, which has been providing a substantial number of loans, recently announced it has to tighten credit due to low reserves.

All of this makes for interesting reading, but one has to question where it takes us.  There are a number of unprecedented anomalies that makes me wonder if the forecast models are valid.  At least one real estate expert noted recently that there were over 2 million excess housing units in California — a shocking number given the number of programs designed to address housing shortages in this State.  California recently hit 12.2% unemployment.  Add to this a “shadow” inventory of properties that have not yet been foreclosed, due either to voluntary moratoriums or deliberate efforts to control inventory.   The Wall St. Journal reports there are approximately 1.2 million homes where the foreclosure process has not begun, even though the mortgages are more than 90 days past due.    The repercussions on local governments across the country have yet to be fully felt, let alone measured, yet are causing unprecedented cutbacks in services.   Ultimately, the entire process will come down to buyers’ ability to purchase homes, whether as first-time buyers taking advantage of tax credits and other incentives, or property owners selling their existing property and moving up.  Without jobs, this simply will not happen.

Therefore, I question what it means to say that housing prices in any specific MSA will rise or fall over any projected time period, given the current turmoil in the market, particularly the inability of the typical person to borrow money.  At the special Norris Group event held on September 11, 2009, “I Survived Real Estate 2009,” the various speakers were remarkably eloquent if not cautious.  David Kittle, 2009 Chairman of the Mortgage Banker’s Association, and John Young, Vice President of the California Builders Industry Association, along with other panelists, were quick to point out that for every new home purchase would result in anadditional expenditure of $7,500 for furnishings and supplies, and noted that Congress is considering a $15,000 tax credit.  They claim that if enacted, this would result in over 400,000 home purchases, significantly reducing the backlog of troubled inventory.  Interesting concepts, and worthy of consideration as a means to jump start the economy.  But such a move by Congress, if enacted, would definitely throw another wrench in to the forecasting models.

It’s easy to be a skeptic, and I won’t claim to know of a better methodology or model.  But I would caution investors to adopt a healthy dose of skepticism when reviewing the ubiquitous “Top Ten Cities” lists as a basis for making an investment decision.  Concentrate on cash flow, a strong and diverse job market, and local conditions.  A good cash flow investment in a bad market will be a better investment than a negative cash flow investment in a good market.  An outdoor enthusiast once told me, “there’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing.”  A corollary maxim would probably be that “there’s no such thing as a bad market — only a bad deal.”  Good gear can get you through the worst of storms.  A good deal will beat a bad market.

Investors need to look deeper into the background information provided by these articles, and REALLY understand the dynamics and demongraphics.  Communities with diverse economies and industries will fare better than those without.