ORLANDO, Fla. — A recovering economy should translate into a spring home-selling season that’s better than last year’s, according to two economic forecasts presented jointly here at the annual meeting of the National Association of Home Builders.
NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe and Freddie Mac economist Frank Nothaft did not, however, project any kind of nationwide housing revival. Instead, they expect a gradual improvement in housing after a slow start for the new year. Their forecasts see home sales and new construction picking up steam by year’s end, by 4 to 10 percent (year-over-year) and 20 percent, respectively.
"The factors leading into 2011 made a soft spot that will be made up," said Crowe. "We had a robust early 2010, with the (homebuying) tax credit and consumer confidence building. Then everything went flat, not just housing," at midyear.
"It had to do with consumers freezing in place" over concerns related to health care legislation, financial reform, tax reform, the status of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and turmoil in the European economic markets, he said.
Crowe said those concerns have been assuaged somewhat and consumer confidence is creeping back into the marketplace. And though employment numbers were disappointing in late 2010, he expects them to pick up momentum through 2011, by an average of 200,000 a month.
Other indicators he sees as encouraging: Orders for durable goods such as cars and furnishings are up, suggesting a consumer willingness to spend money on big-ticket items. He also said demographers project more housing demand to come from a revival in household formations.
And they have some money — consumers’ savings rates have gone up, and their debt burden has gone down, he said.
Nothaft said although home-price patterns in 2011 will vary widely by region and neighborhood, prices should bottom out nationally in 2011; both Crowe and Nothaft said they don’t expect an overall increase in prices until next year.
Price stabilization should draw out buyers who have been on the fence, Nothaft said.
"Some potential buyers who want to buy at the bottom, as they hear about (price stabilization), you’ll see some of them come into the market in spring," Nothaft said. "I think the spring market will be better than we have seen, even if last spring we had the tax credit."
Nothaft projected 30-year mortgage rates throughout 2011 to range from 4.75 to 5.25 percent, still low in historical terms. But purchases won’t offset a steep decline in refinancing activity, so Freddie Mac expects the overall number of originations to decline 20 to 30 percent. He also said he didn’t expect mortgage qualification standards, seen as a roadblock to faster market recovery, to ease this year.
Crowe said his prediction of 21 percent growth in single-family home starts, to 575,000 in 2011, shouldn’t be interpreted as a surge, but at least an improvement over the decimation of the homebuilding industry in the past several years.
"By the end of 2011, (our expectations) are still under half of what would be a normal year for homebuilding," Crowe said.
Nothaft also cautioned that their relative optimism means only a starting point for homebuilders’ recovery. He cited the example of the mid-sized builder who was putting up 50 homes a year at the market’s peak in 2005 but who was reduced to building only 10 in 2010.
"A 20 percent increase sounds like a big increase," though it boosts output to merely 12 homes, Nothaft said. "It sounds like a big increase, but it’s off a really low base."