January Existing Home Sales

KEY DATA: Sales: -3.2%; Over-Year: -4.8%; Prices (Over-Year): +5.8%; Inventory (Over-Year): -9.5%

IN A NUTSHELL: “When you add rising mortgage rates to surging prices and a lack of inventory, it is hard to see that home sales will boom anytime soon.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The housing market has been solid and it remains that way, but there are holes developing in the story that residential real estate will be a leading factor in growth this year. The National Association of Realtors reported that existing home sales were off in January, the second consecutive drop. The declines came after a very strong November number, so maybe the easing in sales could have been expected. Sill, if you average the last three months, the sales pace was only slightly above the 2017 rate, which is not a sign of strength. We cannot really blame weather for the January slump as sales were off in all four regions of the country. The problem is that there are simply few homes on the market. While the inventory did rise a bit in January, it is still way off the level seen the previous January, and that was pretty low. With few homes to purchase, buyers are bidding up prices, which continue to rise sharply. They are up by about 7% or more in three of the four regions, with only the South posting a moderate increase.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: For months, maybe even years now, we have blamed the lack of homes on the market for the relatively low level and modest rise in the sales of homes. And those explanations still make sense. People are just not moving and it is hard for buyers to find the house that they want. And now, interest rates are starting to rise. So, what will happen to the market? First, I do not subscribe to the belief that mortgage rates above 4.5% are a death knell to demand. As I have noted before, the housing bubble formed when rates were between 5.5% and 6.5%. But back then, supply was ample. Now it isn’t. The combination of low inventory and rising rates does not bode well for prices. But not what would be expected: Prices could surge! Buyers have been comfortable biding their time, as rates have been low and stable for so long. But a clear upward trend in mortgage costs would likely cause fence sitters – both those who are already in the market as well as those considering getting into it – to take the leap. That would bid up prices. Hopefully, those higher home values will induce owners to consider selling and given the changing locational preferences of boomers, that is very possible. Without added supply, we could be in for a boom then a bust in housing prices, if mortgage rates jump. I don’t see that happening, though, until late this year or the first half of next.