All of us have a mind-boggling range of challenges to deal with in these stressful and uncharted times of COVID-19. But for many home owners, sellers, and buyers, one concern rises to the top: Are we heading straight into another housing crash?
Little is assured these days, and our current situation is without precedent. But most housing experts believe the wave of across-the-board home-price slashing and desperate sell-offs that characterized the aftermath of the Great Recession are far less likely to materialize this time around.
Why will things be different? Because bad mortgages, rampant home flipping and speculation, and overbuilding all contributed to the last financial meltdown. This time around, the much-stronger housing market isn't the driver of the crisis—it's one of COVID-19's many victims.
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"There's no way we get through this unscathed. But I don't think the world will fall apart in the housing market the way it did in the last recession," says realtor.com®'s chief economist, Danielle Hale. "We won’t see prices driven down out of necessity because people were forced to sell like before.”
In fact, the fundamentals of the housing market couldn't be more different from the economic meltdown of 2007–09. In the lead-up to the Great Recession, it seemed like just about anyone could get a mortgage—or two or three. Today, only buyers deemed less of a risk can score a loan. Credit scores need to be higher, debt-to-income ratios need to be lower, and lenders verify incomes much more carefully.
Additionally, in the mid- to late-aughts, there was a vast oversupply of homes. So when the market crashed, there simply weren't enough qualified buyers to purchase them. And with all of the foreclosures going up for sale, a result of bad loans, home prices plummeted.
But today, there's a severe housing shortage that's keeping prices high.
The biggest wildcards in this current mess are just how long it takes to get the virus under control—and then how quickly the economy takes to bounce back. About 22 million people, or 13% of the U.S. workforce, filed for unemployment in a month's time. Experts predict unemployment could rise to 15% or even 20% before the pain subsides.
Those financial struggles have made it increasingly difficult for folks to pay their rents and mortgages—let alone purchase starter homes or trade-up residences. Roughly 6% of mortgages were in forbearance as of April 12, according to the most recent data released from the Mortgage Bankers Association.
This has sparked fears of another foreclosure crisis—one of the hallmarks of the Great Recession and its aftermath.
"We're [not going to] get through this recession without any challenges for the housing market," says Hale.
Will there be another housing fire sale? Probably not
Deep price cuts are the dream of many cash-strapped buyers—and dread of home sellers. They may not happen this time around, but a slowdown in the price hikes of the past decade are likely, most housing experts say. Home prices may dip—but just slightly, says Hale. (The median home price was $320,000 in March, according to the most recent realtor.com data.)
Prices are driven by the rules of supply and demand. On the supply side there is a record-low inventory of homes on the market, as sellers have been steadily yanking them off. Many don't want potentially infected strangers walking through their homes and want to wait for the economy to improve so they can fetch top dollar for their properties. Others don't want their homes to linger on the market unsold during a time when fewer transactions are taking place.
Still, demand for new homes hasn't evaporated. There are simply too many would-be buyers out there: millennials eager to put down roots and start families, folks who lost their homes during the last recession and want to buy another property, and boomers looking to downsize.
“People need a place to live, and at some point we’re going to get past the virus," says Robert Dietz, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders.
And while many potential buyers will grapple with job losses or the prospect of them, others will be lured in by the prospect of superlow mortgage interest rates. Rates were just 3.31% for 30-year fixed-rate loans as of the week ending April 16, according to Freddie Mac.
“I don’t think we’ll see significant price cuts," says Dietz. "There's a lot of young people who want to attain homeownership.”
There will likely be a "sharp decline" in home sales until the threat of the virus and its economic toll have waned, says Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors®. But he anticipates sales will pick right back up as soon as things return to some semblance of normalcy. That will also keep prices high.
The luxury market could take the biggest blows, however.
Even in the best of times, these ultra expensive homes can be harder to unload. But it will likely be harder to find buyers willing to pay top dollar with the economy and stock market in shambles. Wealthier buyers often have more invested in financial markets, which are being buffeted by wild fluctuations.
"The higher-priced homes are the ones that are being withdrawn [from the market] more often," says Frank Nothaft, chief economist of the real estate data firm CoreLogic. "The lower-priced homes continue to be in really strong demand.”
But not everyone has such confidence that home prices will remain strong.
Ken Johnson, a real estate economist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL, expects that prices will fall much more along the lines of what many bargain-hunting buyers have been hoping to see.
If the economy reopens quickly, prices may decrease only by 5% to 10% nationally, says Johnson. They could be more or less depending on the individual market. But if the crisis and stay-at-home orders go on for another 60 to 90 days, he anticipates prices will plummet up to 50% as there won't be many folks shopping for homes.
“I expect sales to dry up. I expect listings to dry up. I expect showings to dry up," says Johnson. "I hope for the best and fear the worst."
We've underbuilt rather than overbuilt in the run-up to this crisis
The glut of new construction was a calling card of the Great Recession. Newly built homes and communities sat vacant, or mostly empty, after the crash. Cities and suburbs were pocked with stalled construction sites. There were too many homes for too few buyers.
But things are quite different now. Last year, builders put up just under 900,000 single-family homes, shy of the nearly 1.1 million homes considered necessary to alleviate the housing shortage and accommodate the growing population.
"We entered this [new] recession underbuilt rather than overbuilt," says NAHB's Dietz.
But a reduced demand from buyers will likely translate to fewer homes being erected in the near future. And the financial crisis is already making it more difficult for builders to secure the financing needed to put up new homes and developments.
Housing starts, construction that's begun but not completed, were down 22.3% from February to March, according to the seasonally adjusted numbers in the most recent U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report. Traditionally, this is a time when construction generally picks up alongside the warmer weather heading into the busy spring and summer season.
"Building has been far below average for 10 consecutive years, which is the reason why we've faced housing shortages," says NAR's Yun. "Today during the pandemic, there are even fewer listings."
Bad mortgages are largely a thing of the past
One of the biggest culprits of the last economic downturn were riskier subprime mortgages and "liar loans." Since the housing bubble popped, these loans have largely ceased to exist.
Subprime loans were doled out to less qualified and often uninformed buyers, typically lower-income minorities with lower credit scores. After a set period of time, the interest rates on these loans ballooned higher—well out of reach of the borrowers. They defaulted on their mortgages, which set off the housing bust resulting in scores of foreclosures and short sales.
Liar loans were those given to folks whose lenders didn't verify their income. That slipshod practice has largely vanished.
"The mortgages made today have much lower risk. Lenders have tightened up their standards for making loans," says CoreLogic's Nothaft. "They verify income, they verify employment. Subprime lending and liar loans are gone from the market.”
Of course, it's still likely to be difficult for even the most qualified homeowners to make their mortgage payments if they've lost their jobs or a portion of income to the coronavirus. So the federal government is stepping in.
Mortgage forbearance, as well as loan modifications in many cases, are being offered on government-backed mortgages for up to 12 months for those affected by the coronavirus. Many lenders are offering similar assistance to those who don't have a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loan.
"The mortgage forbearance is going to prevent foreclosures," says Yun.
But that doesn't mean there won't be some down the line.
"We will probably see some delinquencies rise," says realtor.com's Hale. "And once the moratoriums are lifted, some people are going to struggle to pay their mortgages."
In addition, investors aren't running rampant like they were in the aughts. Instead of buying properties to hold them and jack up the prices, they've been investing in and upgrading the properties they're buying. And they've had a tougher time of it as the number of foreclosures, short sales, and other cheap and auctioned-off homes have become harder to find as the economy had rebounded.
What does the future of the housing market look like?
How the housing market will fare over the coming months and years is still a mystery, since no one knows just how long this public health pandemic will last and how long the economy will take to rebound. Real estate is likely to suffer until the economy improves and folks feel more confident in buying and selling homes again.
The stimulus bill and extra $600 a week in additional unemployment funding are likely to buoy the economy and "relieve some of the anxiety," says Yun.
Even in a worst-case scenario, the majority of Americans are still employed. And mortgage interest rates are at record lows. They're hovering around 3%, unlike the more than 6% they were at at the beginning of the Great Recession.
"This [crisis] is short-term," says Yun. "We will come out of this."
Even those with less rosy views believe that a strong rebound for housing may be in the cards.
“If we go for an extended period where we’re under stay-at-home orders, then we can expect a crash on par with the previous one," says real estate economist Johnson. "But the comeback could be quicker."
Clare Trapasso is the senior news editor of realtor.com and an adjunct journalism professor at the College of Mount Saint VIncent. She previously wrote for a Financial Times publication, the New York Daily News, and the Associated Press. She is also a licensed real estate agent. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.