Record Low Interest Rates Yet Data Shows Lack of Activity. Why?

I recently read an article written by Time Magazine’s Alison Rogers discussing the recent trends within the national real estate market.  Her argument is that data has shown that while interest rates are at an all-time low (since Freddie Mac began keeping track of them in 1971) buyers still haven’t jumped in.  Her short article cites the restrictions of lenders as the main cause (albeit, not the only one).

Lending has definitely become more restrictive.  Gone are the days of people making $10/hour qualifying for $500,000 houses on “stated” income (you tell the lender how much you make, rather than any kind of documentation required).  I will also agree that the pendulum has swung to the uber-conservative where people with good income, good credit, and little debt still find getting a loan exhausting.  (Tangent story: recently had a client buy a house for his son and, as a lesson of responsibility for his son, got a loan and put his son on the title.  The father could’ve bought the house cash and nearly did when the lending got so tedious and involved.)  However, I cite many other reasons for the lack of activity in the market.  I see them as follows:

  1. Uncertainty in Where the  Market is Going:  yes, if you are a first time home buyer the tax advantages of buying a house far outweigh waiting out the market, even if it declines (see one of the Blog’s from last week: “Renting vs. Buying: The Whole Story”).  Still, it’s very hard to buy something today when it may decline in 6 months.  Psychologically, everyone wants to buy in an appreciating market where you can know for sure that the value is going up.  Those who are affected most by a declining market are investors.  Flipping a house has become very difficult unless you’ve got a lot of cash on hand and the ability to renovate at cost.  Even then, you gamble a little in a relatively shaky market.
  2. Uncertainty in the Job Market: in August of 2011 the unemployment rate was at 9.1% nationally.  Remember, that’s 9.1% of the total labor force that is unemployed but actively seeking employment and willing to work.  What that number doesn’t take into account are people who have jobs but see the guy in the next cubicle get canned.  Leah has a great job but sees Joe in the next office get laid off.  I can assure you the last thing crossing Leah’s mind is running out and buying a house.  People need jobs to buy houses and get loans and without the peace of mind of a stable job we aren’t going to see an increase in activity.
  3. Better ROI Elsewhere: return on investment (ROI) is the name of the game these days.  Got cash and need somewhere to put it?  Before the downgrade, the stock market might have been a better, albeit riskier, decision than the real estate market.  Take an above average example, Apple Inc.  At the beginning of 2009 it was selling for around $100 per share.  As of today (October 6, 2011) Apple Inc closed at $369.80 per.  Quadruple your investment since 2009?  Probably wouldn’t have happened in real estate unless you had cash.  The difference is that real estate has been a safer, longer term investment.  People that own houses and already have the tax shelter find that for bigger ROI the stock market is the way to go.

Overall, real estate is always a good investment if you’re in it for the long haul.  If you want to buy something and flip it in the next 6 months, I’d say you better have experience doing it and trust that you can get something well below market.  Buying today and holding for 5 years or more?  I can honestly say that within that time frame the market will be in a better place.  If you have questions or are interested in discusses the market, please always feel free to call or email me.