When compared to recent history, 2012 sales numbers and construction starts are similar to where the housing market was in the late 1990s. The results are fairly decent, but nowhere near the boom years of 2003 to 2006. However, given that the unemployment rate continues to hover above 8%, these figures certainly are better than expected. Of course, many of the sales — especially of condominiums and townhomes — are to investors because of the ever-increasing number of renters.
Everything Else Feels Good, Too
What is especially noteworthy is the gain in confidence among both investors and builders. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index increased in September for the fifth consecutive month, hitting a level of 40, the highest it has been since June, 2006.
Additionally, all three Housing Market Index components rose in September. This includes current sales conditions, sales prospects over the next six months, and traffic of prospective buyers. However, remember that any reading below 50 still is considered negative, and improvements in new construction of single-family homes will largely be determined by future job growth — or a lack therof.
We also are seeing some improvement in perception among the general public. Along with an increase in the consumer confidence numbers this week, the number of people who believe their homes will appreciate over the next 12 months has also been rising.
All this has helped homebuilders and other housing-affected stocks take their place among some of the market’s best-performing stocks, with D.R. Horton (NYSE:DHI, +75%), Whirlpool (NYSE:WHR, +78%), Lennar (NYSE:LEN, +86%) and PulteGroup (NYSE:PHM, +164%) all ranking in the S&P 500’s best stocks year-to-date in 2012.
Issues at Hand
Looking ahead to the third-quarter results, when they are all reported, I believe we will see a continuation in the solid numbers of closed sales. This is remarkable, considering that many pending sales still fall apart before closing because of tighter lending standards, properties not appraising for the sales price and occasional title problems on foreclosure sales.
A potential problem for the real estate market is that the government continues to quietly sneak more costs into the borrowing process.
FHA loans are becoming more expensive, as the Federal Housing Authority looks for ways to make up for lost revenue thanks to ongoing higher rates of default on their loans. Consumers will not notice the slight increases in interest rates or fees now, but should rates go up later on, these nickel-and-dime increases could become burdensome for potential home buyers.
But the greatest threat remains the 2 million foreclosure homes that still have not hit the market.
Banks continue to hold onto these, releasing very few; as a result, the lack of inventory has stabilized prices and created demand among investors. The question is, will they continue to do this, or will they eventually begin to flood the market with more distress sales?
That still is the great mystery of the housing market, and may well determine where prices go over the next quarter or two.
We are either at the beginning of a new uptrend, or we have just been pulled into one great head fake before prices come crashing down again.
As of this writing, Ethan Roberts did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.