Commentary: Figure at least another 20% before families can afford to buy
By Dr. Irwin Kellner, MarketWatch
Last update: 11:23 p.m. EST Dec. 3, 2007
PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. (MarketWatch) — Housing will revive when prices come down to the point where demand rises enough to reduce the huge supply of unsold homes now overhanging the market. That said, this point is a long way off.
Today, median home prices are 3.5 times the size of median annual family incomes. This may be down from the recent peak of 4.2 times incomes reached last year, but it’s way above the 2.8 times that home prices averaged during 1984-2000, when lots of homes were bought, sold and built.
And if you think 2.8 is low, check out the early 1970s. That was when home prices were only 2.3 times median family incomes, and housing was selling like gangbusters.
To get prices back to 2.8 times family incomes would require a drop of 20% from today’s levels – and this does not take into account interest rates and lending standards.
To equal the affordability of the early 1970s, prices would have to fall a whopping 38%.
Those who say such declines can’t happen are ignoring how fast home prices rose in the first half of this decade. In most parts of the country, housing prices doubled during this five-year period while incomes went up only a fraction as much.
Sellers could always hold the line and wait for family incomes to rise. But this clearly won’t happen overnight – and, besides, it’s a buyer’s market and no one wants to buy today knowing that prices might well be lower tomorrow.
After all, when it comes to housing prices, what matters most is not the cost of construction, nor what surrounding homes might be selling for.
Simply put, it’s affordability.
And until they are more affordable, houses won’t sell.