Posted on Thursday, May 5, 2011
Housing prices slid back in February to their lowest level of the downturn, fresh proof — as if any were needed — that real estate remains one of the most troubled sectors of the economy.
The Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index for 20 metropolitan areas dropped 1.1 percent from January, S.& P. said Tuesday.
By the barest of margins, the index failed to plumb new depths. It is now at 139.27, essentially the same as the low of 139.26 that it reached in April 2009.
Housing prices are falling even though banks have been pulling back on foreclosures, which generally drive neighborhood prices down. They are falling despite low interest rates, which make houses more affordable. And they are falling even though they have already dropped by a third from their heady peaks in mid-decade.
“It looks pretty bad,” the chairman of the S.& P. index committee, David M. Blitzer, said. “Could it get a little worse? Sure. Could it get a whole lot worse, so everywhere looks the way Detroit looks now? To get there, you’d have to paint a really, really grim picture.”
Another devastating recession, perhaps? Potential buyers scorning en masse the notion of ownership? Mr. Blitzer does not see those happening.
This will be small comfort for anyone trying to sell in this environment, or merely wondering where the money for retirement will come from. Washington was the only Case-Shiller city where prices went up over the last year. But even it dropped slightly in February. Ten of the cities in the index, including Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, New York and Seattle, hit a low for the cycle during the month. That was one fewer than January.
Detroit was the exception. Why Detroit, by far the worst housing market in the country, rose when everywhere else was sliding is a statistical mystery.
For the 20 cities, prices are down 3.3 percent in the last 12 months. That is not much compared to the precipitous drops of 2008 and 2009 but some see the declines accelerating.
Capital Economics, a forecasting group in Toronto, previously said prices would drop about 5 percent this year. “That forecast is looking increasingly realistic,” Paul Dales, a senior United States economist, wrote in a note to clients.
Another 5 percent decline in the index would take it back to about 133. While that equates to a 33 percent gain for homeowners since 2000, it is just about nothing after inflation is factored in. And those would be the lucky ones, who bought long ago.
Most economists think the market is in transition to something resembling stability, although few expect genuine price increases anytime soon.
“Things are moving in the direction of getting better,” said Eric Fox, vice president for statistical and economic modeling for the consultant Veros.
Among the helpful trends: The oversupply of houses that characterized the early stages of the downturn is gradually being absorbed, the employment situation is marginally better and interest rates are not increasing.
Veros is forecasting that stronger markets, including Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Shreveport, La., will increase 2 to 3 percent over the next year, while the weakest markets will fall about 5 percent. Weak markets include Las Vegas, Orlando, Fla., and Portland, Ore.
“Foreclosures are the big unknown,” Mr. Fox said. “If there is a huge influx, that can have an effect.”
The Case-Shiller index, which measures repeat sales of houses, is an imperfect measure of the real estate market. The index is a three-month moving average, so the February results include December and January.
Other indexes also describe a troubled market, however. The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s index, which is calculated using the purchase prices of houses with mortgages that have been sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, the government loan repositories, is declining at a faster rate than previously.
The F.H.F.A. index fell 1.6 percent in February from the previous month, the agency said last week, while the January decline was revised up to 1 percent. In the last year, the index has fallen nearly 6 percent.
If some troubled owners are beginning to reject the notion of homeownership, a few renters are sensing this might be their moment.
“Talking about how the recession is bad for home builders and sellers ignores an entire segment of the country for whom this is a blessing,” said Abby Eagye, 41.
A writer, skiing instructor and emergency medical worker, Ms. Eagye lives in Aspen, Colo., where the wealthy roam. But the crash has yielded some surprising deals. Ms. Eagye is pulling together a down payment.
“I missed the real estate window once and I don’t care to do it again,” she said. “I have no false dreams of flipping homes to make money. I just want the safety of owning my own home.”
By DAVID STREITFELD, THE NEW YORK TIMES