Home prices are closing in on their records of the last decade, reigniting fears of bubbles. Time to panic?
In most markets, probably not. A few look overvalued, but that may not necessarily be the same thing as a bubble. A recent article from researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco does a good job of showing how prices have rebounded over the last four years without the leverage-fueled mania that gripped housing markets during the past decade’s bubble. In other words, many of the “red flags” of last decade’s boom “are not evident in the current housing recovery.”
Still, there are concerns from housing analysts that low mortgage rates have allowed buyers to pay more for homes that would look unaffordable relative to incomes if mortgage rates rose to 5% or 6%. “It’s not a bubble, but some markets are overpriced,” said John Burns, who runs a homebuilder consulting firm in Irvine, Calif.
For cities where prices have increased briskly, some economists say worries about “bubbles” have distracted from more immediate concerns, namely the drag on the economy from consumers who must devote a greater share of their incomes to housing.
Would-be buyers face unpleasant choices. “They either have to stretch their finances so incredibly as to be in a precarious situation, or they’ve got to have a commute they view as hell,” said housing economist Thomas Lawler. “Or they can rent and hope things get better.”
So which markets look most overvalued? In July, we looked at how home prices nationally compared with their prior peaks, before and after adjusting for inflation. Here, we’ll run the same analysis for around 20 markets.
We look at the change in the home-price index over the last 25 years, with one line that shows price change in nominal terms and another that looks at them after adjusting for inflation using the consumer-price index.
Three Problem Spots
The biggest problem spots primarily crop up along the coasts in cities that have more supply constraints and in those where job growth and wealth gains have been brisk.
San Francisco: Prices in San Francisco are up 58% since 1990 after adjusting for inflation, which is down just one-third from last decade’s peak.
New York: In New York City, prices of condominiums have set nominal records and are very close to their 2006 real records.
Denver: Denver is the only metro area covered by the Case-Shiller index since 1990 that has seen prices rise to new inflation-adjusted highs. Denver largely avoided the worst of the 2000s bubble and prices aren’t that much higher now than they were then.
Seven More to Watch
Boston, Seattle, Portland: Prices in Boston, Seattle and Portland, Ore., appear to be more than halfway back to their inflation-adjusted peaks and have closed in on their nominal records.
San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C.: Other coastal cities are still at less than one-third of their prior peaks, or around where they were before the 2004-06 bubbles inflated in earnest. This group includes San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington, D.C.
At the other end of the spectrum are cities where prices remain at or well below their bubble levels—even after adjusting for inflation across the economy. Rustbelt cities such as Cleveland have lost population, and prices have fallen in inflation-adjusted terms. Clearly, no bubbles to worry about there.
Some epicenters of the housing bust also fall into this camp. In Phoenix, Las Vegas and Tampa, Fla., prices look like they’ve largely returned to their long-run averages. While this means we don’t have to worry about bubbles in these places, it does mean that homeowners who bought or took cash out of their homes during the bubble still owe more than their homes may be worth.
A final group of cities falls somewhere in between. In Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., prices never boomed much and have barely reached new highs.
Others with traditionally inexpensive housing had moderate booms and busts, such as Chicago, Atlanta and Minneapolis, and show few gains, if any, when adjusting for inflation.
Home Prices vs. Rents
Another way to gauge affordability is to look at how home prices compare to rents. Similar pictures emerge here. Prices are more expensive on a historical basis in markets that didn’t have big housing bubbles. Hi, Texas.
With the exception of Miami, prices appear to have leveled off after rebounding over the past four years in the Sunbelt bubble epicenters.
And in California and the Northeast, home prices are back to levels seen in the early 2000s. Housing is more expensive than it was throughout the 1990s, but below their bubble-era highs.
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