On the House: Could it be that buying a home is becoming attractive again?

Posted: January 15, 2012

Subtract inflation from the equation, and home prices today are the same as they were in 2001. That's what David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at Standard & Poor's, wrote on S&P's "HousingViews" blog on New Year's Eve.

"In fact, allowing for a dip in home prices in the 1990s, when inflation rose faster than houses, we're almost back to 1989," wrote Blitzer, who reports on the Case-Shiller indexes each month.

I'm sure anyone reading the entry on Dec. 31 began guzzling champagne from the bottle rather than sipping it from the glass - or at least those unaware of how bad things had gotten since the economic downturn began.

"The run-up and the run-down in prices in the 2000s didn't do much for average home values while they wreaked havoc on the economy," Blitzer continued.

Then he asked the $64,000 question: "Is buying a home a good idea?"

His answer: "It depends on the economy, the real estate market, and most of all on the needs, desires and finances of the potential buyer."

Needs, desires, and finances, these three, but the greatest of these is . . . well, you fill in the appropriate blank.

Let's look at the components, with the economy first. Joel L. Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Bucks County, says 2011 ended on a high note.

"If economic activity is to accelerate, the consumer has to reengage, and that is happening," Naroff said.

"Households are spending money again," he said, and "the comparisons with 2010 numbers were really good."

Consumers were hitting the malls, the Internet, and the auto dealerships, "blowing the dust out of the wallet and opening it up," he said.

Second component: the real estate market.

"Until housing starts to pick up steam and it is a lot easier to get a loan, don't expect robust growth to return," Naroff said.

Based on November's Census Bureau numbers for private residential construction, IHS Global Insight Inc. economists Patrick Newport and Michelle Valverde are projecting modest growth numbers in this category in the first half of 2012, but double-digit growth in the second half.

Spending on multifamily housing had its first gain in three months in November, leading the two to observe that "the recent strong gains . . . start to point to solid increases" throughout the year.

So back to needs, desires, and finances.

Sometimes, need outweighs the other factors. A relocation for a job, the birth of another child, or downsizing as family circumstances change are just three positive reasons I can think of off the top.

Desires? Desire is playing less of a role than when the market was at its height. Yet survey after survey by groups outside the housing industry say most Americans want to own a home, although they are being smarter about it as they look at the record foreclosures of the last four or five years.

Most middle-class buyers today apparently are thinking long and hard about price and resale value rather than about chrome vs. brushed-nickel bathroom fixtures, which can be installed somewhere down the road anyway.

Last but not least: financing. Money remains tight for all but those with excellent credit, and that is ultimately what turns desires and needs into reality.

On this front, Naroff is encouraging.

"While tight credit and restrictive standards may be limiting lending, many households and businesses have refinanced, and that is adding to cash flow and bolstering balance sheets," he said.

"Simply put, firms and individuals will have the money to spend, and they are likely to do that."

Maybe not everyone. But perhaps enough to make a difference.

"On the House" appears Sundays. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or @alheavens on Twitter.

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