NEW YORK — Four chief economists from some of the nation’s most popular real estate websites are optimistic about the housing market this year, citing an expected increase in home sales, and low mortgage rates and oil prices leaving more money in consumers’ pockets.

Still, low inventory, decreasing home affordability and negative equity continue to be concerns, the economists told attendees at Real Estate Connect today.

“Home prices are going to rise more slowly this year than last year, but faster than incomes,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for

“Buyers want a lot of homes for sale … at a price point they can expense over 30 years,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist for real estate brokerage and referral site Redfin.

There continue to be high rates of negative equity — where borrowers owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth — which can prevent homeowners from putting their homes on the market or lead to short sales. In the latter case, both buying and selling a home can mean banks are involved in the deal, and that’s where agents come in, said Stan Humphries, chief economist for Zillow.

“Negative equity is going to be with us for the balance of a decade and that’s where having good real estate agents is going to be really helpful,” he said.

First-time homebuyers remain a mixed bag. Humphries was buoyed by “fantastic” household formation rate numbers released this week, but Trulia Chief Economist Jed Kolko noted that the likeliest first-time buyers — millennials — are “less than halfway back to normal in terms of having a job (and) still about as likely to live with their parents as they were during the recession.”

With an average age of 23, millennials will contribute to a boom in renting before they become homeowners, Kolko said.

In what may be a hopeful sign, Kolko said rental demand has changed from single-family homes for people looking to rent after foreclosure to people looking for apartments to rent after they move out of their parents’ homes.

While Smoke expressed concern about regulations crimping mortgage credit, Kolko said, “Washington is actually less of a wild card than it has been in years. We’re seeing nibbles around the edges, not comprehensive reforms.”

Richardson said this may have something to do with a different perspective on housing at the federal level. When she worked at Freddie Mac years ago, people thought home prices could never go down — now they know that all kinds of events at home and abroad can affect home prices, she said.

Overall, the economists had a 65 to 90 percent confidence level in a better housing market this year.

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