Home prices continued to decline in January, despite improving economic conditions.
The Standard & Poor’s/ Case-Shiller indices found that homes fell 3.8 percent in value nationally since January 2011. It is the fifth straight month of decline, and the average U.S. home is now worth what it was in early 2003 – - when the national economy was $4 trillion smaller.
The rate at which prices fell slowed from previous months, however, leaving housing experts and economists scratching their heads over whether a bottom may be in sight.
The continued drop in home prices comes as the economy begins to pick up steam. The country added more than 200,000 jobs in February, and the unemployment rate declined to 8.3 percent.
Consumer confidence has improved recently as Americans feel more secure about the improving economy.
All of these signs lead some to be optimistic about the housing market.
“We think it’s the beginning of a broad stabilization of home prices,” said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors (NAR). “We’re probably not going to see a whole lot of increase this year. There might be a slight aggregate increase in prices this year, but we’re not going to see a real gain until 2013.”
Existing home sales, according to NAR, are markedly improved from February 2011.
“The market is trending up unevenly, with record high consumer buying power and sustained job gains giving buyers the confidence they need to get into the market,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for NAR.
Major headwinds still confront the deeply depressed housing market. One in five homeowners are underwater on their mortgage – - meaning their mortgage is worth more than their home.
These distressed properties, along with a glut of foreclosures, are pushing prices downward, economists say.
More than 13 million Americans remain unemployed, despite recent job gains, and energy prices are rising fast and may eat into future consumer spending.
“It’s really hard to look at these little leading indicators and figure out where going,” said Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale and co-creator of the housing indicator. “If gasoline prices stay up, then maybe suburban housing doesn’t look as good.”
Shiller also said government policy surrounding the mortgages it owns through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration will help determine where the market goes from here.
“It’s politics and oil prices and technological progress, “ Shiller said. “There’s so many factors, that I don’t think anybody can qualify this. And I’m not going to try either.”
Sixteen of 19 metropolitan saw declines, with Atlanta suffering through the largest yearly decline at 14.8 percent.
Denver, Detroit and Phoenix were the only areas that posted gains, however modest. Of the three, Detroit’s housing market improved the most – - a 1.7 percent increase.
Both the 10-city and 20-city composite indices saw housing prices decline 0.8 percent since December. Only Phoenix, Miami and Washington increased home values over that time period.
The housing indicator measures home sales over a three-month period.