In October, Lennar Corp. took the road previously not taken. The Miami-based homebuilder decided to invest its hard-earned dollars not in new housing developments, but in distressed real estate, buying $740 million in busted assets from three financial institutions. At this point in the housing cycle it was probably a better use of its capital.
From April 2010 when the federal homebuyer tax credits expired, sales of existing homes slid lower and lower and lower. The National Association of Realtors’ figures for August showed a 19.2 percent decline over August 2009. And the Wall Street Journal reported home sales were lowest for any month since 1997 except for July.
It seems the only thing keeping the housing market afloat from 2009 to early 2010 were the tax credits. Otherwise, even with record-low mortgage rates, the American public can’t be pulled, dragged or cajoled into buying a new home.
Real estate folks suggest the market has reached an impasse: Buyers won’t buy unless prices are deflated even more, but sellers feel they have dropped prices more than enough to make a sale.
Economists, looking at the bigger picture, suggest the high unemployment numbers are the culprit and unless the job picture perks up there will be no major improvement in home sales.
The futurists point to a number of potential housing-price deflators ahead: a double dip recession, which will knock the stuffing out of current home prices; shadow inventory of technical-default homes that have not been put on the market; or the 11 million borrowers who are underwater on the homes but could be joined by millions more if prices decline further.
I have my own theory: The concept of homeownership as a necessity of modern life has been broken, bagged and tossed in the trash.
Americans have always believed the one true goal in life was to own a home. However, it was never really an attainable concept for everyone; for many it was a pipe dream, like hoping one day to become a millionaire, or in today’s inflated numbers, a billionaire.
That all changed after World War II.
The millions of soldiers and sailors coming back from the war, many newly married, had nowhere to live except with parents because little new housing had been built during the war years. Then in the late 1940s, two things happened. William Levitt conceived Levittown, the first massive housing development to be built using modern, assembly-line manufacturing techniques, thus paving the way for the development of the suburbs we know so well today.
Secondly, the government moved to make mortgages easier for Americans to obtain, including such wild and crazy innovations as increasing the payoff on a fixed-rate loan to 30 years.
Since then, we have been building developments and creating new, innovative and sometimes disastrous ways to get more mortgages to more people. In effect, we created a psychology of homeownership.
Those of us living in the United States began to feel that to really be an American, one had to own a home. Unless one lived in a big, urban setting like New York, Boston or San Francisco, not owning your home was considered somewhat un-American.
Developers, of course, leave no stone unturned and allow no ground to lie fallow. They took dead aim at those big-city, non-home-owning types by creating the high-rise condominium, or in New York, the co-op. There was no way to avoid it — you had to own something.
This psychology of homeownership became even more distorted over the period of the mid-1990s to mid-2000s due to rampant inflationary pressure on home prices. By throwing price appreciation into the mix, it was like adding LSD to the Kool-Aid.
If somehow you hadn’t gotten the message that it was definitely not OK to not own a home, the new concept of the house as your primary family investment was too overwhelming to disregard.
And just like at the end World War II, the federal government along with the banking system once again conspired to make things easier and easier to get that mortgage.
The bursting of the housing bubble has changed all that. The concept that your house is something more than shelter, that it’s the safest or best investment you’ll ever make, has been destroyed.
In addition, owning a house is not always a positive. It can also be a negative, and not just because your mortgage may be larger than the value of your house.
Homeownership restricts movement, and the other great part of the American experience is fluidity, the ability to pick up stakes and move somewhere else in the country for the hope of a better life. Or, in today’s reduced standards, simply for the hope of a job. If you are unemployed today in Minneapolis and you can’t sell your home to look for a job in Austin, you’re screwed.
So where do we stand today?
To quote Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow, "We are in an era of historical low mortgage rates, reaching levels not seen in decades. Coupled with four years of home-value declines, homes are more affordable than we have seen for years."
At mid-year 2007, just as the subprime mortgage market was about to blow up and lead the country into a recession, the average weekly rate on conforming 30-year fixed-rate mortgages was close to 7 percent. This past summer, the average rate on the same mortgage instrument kept hitting new lows. Now, it’s trending around the 4.8 percent level.
Even with money as cheap as we can remember in our lifetime, and home prices that have declined as much as 50 percent in some cities, we still can’t induce enough people to buy homes. The reason being: It suddenly has become all right to be a non-homeowner.
What a strange concept.