Homeowner's Financial Recovery Taking 9 Years, and There's 2 to Go
By: Jeff Brown

NEW YORK (sbup) — Two years and change — that's how long until home prices finish recovering all the losses from the financial crisis, according to a survey from Zillow.com.

The home sales and data firm says that by May 2017 the median home price should exceed its pre-recession peak of $196,400. If so, it will have taken roughly nine years to get back into the black after the home-price crash — a disturbing figure for homeowners who had long thought a house or condo to be not just a home but a key asset for retirement and other needs.

The survey of experts, conducted for Zillow by the research and consulting firm Pulsenomics, forecast a 4.4% price gain this year, well below the double-digit increases of a few years ago but still ahead of the long-term average of around 3% a year.

"During the past year, expectations for annual home value appreciation over the long run have remained flat, despite lower mortgage rates," says Pulsenomics founder Terry Loebs. "At 4.4%, overall expectations for nationwide home value growth in 2015 are one-third lower than the actual 6.6% appreciation rate recorded last year."

While homeowners prefer big price gains, the slowing pace is actually good news because it signals a soft landing, not another bubble likely to burst. Because a home is a big asset that is hard to sell, price volatility is hazardous to the owner's financial health.

Among the factors that muddy the situation: the high cost of renting. High rents give renters an incentive to buy, but they also make it hard to save up a down payment. Pulsenomics says it will take a couple of years for this situation to ease, arguing there's not much the federal government can do to make rents more affordable,  though policies to lift wages and employment can help.

"Housing markets in general and rental dynamics in particular are uniquely local and demand local, market-driven policies," Zillow Chief Economist Stan Humphries says.

Tight supply of rental housing could be eased by making it easier for developers to build new units. That could involve speeding the approval process or changing zoning codes.

The pace of housing sales and home price gains is, in a sense, not a clear measure of supply and demand because many would-be buyers are shut out of the market by tight lending standards.

The credit availability index calculated by the Mortgage Bankers Association rose to 117.8 in January, compared with 100 in March 2012. But this is still far below the levels of 300 to nearly 900 in the Wild West days of 2004 to early 2007. While few experts recommend a return to the no-questions-asked policies that helped bring on the financial crisis, many feel today's standards are too tight, shutting out borrowers who are good risks.

Fortunately, there is some hope on this front.

"Several new initiatives aimed at making mortgage credit more available and affordable to consumers were recently announced and resulted in a net loosening of credit over the month," MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni says. 

Those include new Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac programs requiring down payments of only 3%, and a reduction in mortgage insurance premiums on FHA loans.

Those moves could bring more buyers into the market, ensuring that home prices continue to rise at a healthy pace.

—For more ways to save, spend, invest and borrow, visit MainStreet.com.

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