Why home values may take decades to recover

Rick Wallick moved into a new, three-bedroom $200,000 home in Maricopa, Ariz., in October 2005. Today, the home is worth $80,000.

The disabled software engineer stopped making mortgage payments this month. His $70,000 down payment is now worthless. His dream house will be foreclosed on next year.

"We're so far underwater it's not funny," says Wallick, 57, who had to return to his original home in Oregon to care for a sick family member and tend to his own medical problems. Wallick, one of the hardest-hit victims in one of the states hit hardest by the housing crisis, lost 60% of his home's value in three years.

His story is an extreme example, but home values have fallen so sharply since hitting a historic peak in the spring of 2006 that many Americans are wondering how much more prices can sink.

As painful as the decline has been, history suggests home values still may have a long way to drop and may take decades to return to the heights of 2½ years ago.

"We will never see these prices again in our lifetime, when you adjust for inflation," says Peter Schiff, president of investment firm Euro Pacific Capital of Darien, Conn. "These were lifetime peaks."

The boom in home prices — fueled by heavily leveraged loans built on low or even no down payments — made it easy to forget that housing values had been remarkably stable for a half-century after World War II, rising at roughly the same pace as income and inflation. Prices soared in most of the country — especially in Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada and metro areas of Washington, D.C., and New York — during a brief period of easy lending, especially from 2002 to 2006. That era's over.

So far, home values nationally have tumbled an average of 19% from their peak. As bad as that is, prices would need to fall as least 17% more to reach their traditional relationship to household income, according to a USA TODAY analysis of home prices since 1950. In that scenario, a $300,000 house in 2006 could be worth about $200,000 when real estate prices hit bottom.

The price plunge has wiped out trillions of dollars in home equity and caused the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Susan Wachter, professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania, fears that foreclosures and tight credit could send home prices falling to the point that millions of families and thousands of banks are thrust into insolvency.

"Homes are different than other goods and services," she says. "The fragility of our banking system is tied to the value of homes."

Home values have fallen before — during the Great Depression and in Texas after a 1980s oil boom, for example — but those drops were a response to other economic forces. This time, the housing price collapse is the cause of the nation's broad economic troubles, not just an effect.

"If we have another 20% decline in prices, we'll need another bailout of banks similar to what we just did," Wachter says.

Other economists see a brighter picture in the long term. Wachovia economist Adam York expects home values to keep falling until 2010 but is optimistic they will recover.

"The one saving grace is the population is growing by 3 million people a year," he says. "They need to live somewhere. That means more roofs."

50 years of steady values

Until recently, homes were stable, unspectacular investments, not get-rich-quick schemes.

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