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On June 30, 2009, Buy an Apartment

Our resident financial expert calls the end of the housing-market free fall—to the day.

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Illustration by Zohar Lazar  

For more than a year, I’ve been a huge bear on housing. From the moment the credit-crisis storm began to form, I’ve been shouting in my usual unhinged way about just how bad the devastation would be, and carrying on about how anyone who bought a home in this environment would lose money immediately. At various points along the way, my house-hating judgment has been questioned, but I’d say I’ve been vindicated by the relentless decline in home values we’ve seen, the worst since the Great Depression. Even here, in our so-called real-estate-superstar city, prices may not have fallen, but the rate of acceleration has started to soften.

These days, I don’t know a soul who hasn’t jumped on the real-estate-is-an-awful-investment bandwagon. When I interview the once-rabid bulls on housing—those who make their livelihood building and selling homes, like Bob Toll, the CEO of the best home builder in America, Toll Brothers—I get grim predictions of nary a turn in sight. When I pressed Toll recently as to whether he sees any light at the end of the tunnel, he quickly answered yes: “The light of an oncoming train!”

Well, I now have another contrarian point of view to proffer: The converted bears, as well as the panicked sellers desperate to bail out and nervous buyers afraid to jump in, will be dead wrong nine months from now, when housing prices bottom. In fact, I’ll call the precise date of the housing-market turnaround. It will begin on June 30, 2009.

Let me give you ten reasons why everyone who now thinks there’s no end in sight to weakening home prices will look like a fool in nine months and will miss the best opportunity to buy since the 1989–1991 real-estate crash.

1. Two years ago, we were building twice as many homes as in 2008, and the decline in new-home building is now accelerating. At this pace, we could see new-home construction fall an additional 25 percent, back to levels last seen when we had 60 million fewer people living in this country. By next June we won’t be building enough homes to accommodate demand, and the gap between supply and demand won’t be made up by unsold inventory.

2. The housing bears seem to forget that Congress passed a bill authorizing $300 billion in FHA loans, which give troubled homeowners a fighting chance to pay their mortgages or get current on them. By nine months from now, the FHA will have taken millions in terrible floating-rate loans with high interest rates and turned them into 30-year mortgages with much lower rates. That’s going to reduce the number of foreclosed homes, and the supply of available homes, dramatically.

3. Bargains! Prices have already come down to the point where there are real values, and by June of next year, I believe real-estate prices will have fallen 25 percent nationwide from their previous highs, with some of the hardest-hit areas of the country down as much as 50 percent. At those price levels, homes will seem irresistible to the many millions of potential buyers who have stayed on the sidelines.

4. The last holdout area, New York, is nearing its bottom. The Wall Street brokerage houses will let employees know their bonus situations—or lack thereof—next month. Look for a further softening of prices in the city and even more so in the Hamptons, as hiring vanishes and Wall Street payrolls contract drastically. When the last areas fall, the bottoming process begins in earnest. By next June, Wall Street, and its power to drive down home prices, won’t hurt us anymore.

5. Right now, mortgages are expensive relative to their historical benchmark, the 30-year Treasury note. By next summer, I believe that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be nationalized to shore up their flimsy capital foundations. Once the loans that Fannie and Freddie repackaged are explicitly guaranteed by the government, they’ll become the world’s best investments, as they’ll offer much higher yields than Treasury notes, with no more risk. That will cause a steep decline in mortgage rates, making it easier to borrow money and buy a home.

6. Come June, the bulk of the reckless 2-and-28 loans—the ones with the low teaser rates for the first two years that sucked people in and then reset at much higher rates, dragging people under—will have moved through the system. These loans have been the biggest source of foreclosed property, so the rate of foreclosures should decline sharply once those loans are off the books, tightening supply and soothing anxious buyers’ nerves.

7. We may not think of ourselves this way, but we are still a growing nation: Four million babies are born each year in this country, vastly exceeding the nation’s death rate. Household formation, meanwhile, has held steady at about 800,000 a year. Families have been camped in their apartments or crowding in with their in-laws for some time now. That pent-up demand is bound to find expression and put upward pressure on prices, as credit again becomes easier to get.


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