Trying to buy in a seller's market
I'm looking to buy my first home, but I'm starting to see a "sellers market" where I live. Should I hold off a year and see what happens to the market?
By Walter Updegrave, MONEY Magazine senior editor

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - I am currently renting, but have been looking for the last six months or so to buy my first home. But I'm concerned that we're beginning to see a "sellers market" where I live, which, combined with the auto industry's problems, could hurt my resale value if I were to move in three to five years. Would I be better off renting for another year to see how things shape up?

-- Blake Johnson, Lansing, Michigan

I don't think there's any doubt that the white-hot housing market we've had over the past five years or so is showing signs of cooling. Although the latest stats show that existing home sales were up in February after five months of decline, most experts say the increase was an aberration due to mild January weather. Indeed, the National Association of Realtors is predicting that home sales will decline about 6 percent this year compared to 2005's record sales.

But declining sales don't automatically translate to lower prices. In fact, as of the fourth quarter of last year, almost half of the 145 metropolitan areas NAR tracks still showed double-digit increases in median sales prices.

NAR stats show that sales prices have experienced outright price declines recently in a handful of metro areas, however, including where you live -- Lansing, where the median price was down about 1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2005.

It's important to remember, though, that the NAR tracks the price of the median-priced home in each market. As a statistical matter, that means that if the mix of homes tilts more toward lower-priced houses, the median could decline even if each house that was sold fetched a higher sales price.

I think you get a more accurate barometer of whether house prices are rising or falling by looking an index such as the OFHEO (Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight) House Price Index, which monitors repeat sales and refinancings of the same houses. And, indeed, if you check out OFHEO's latest stats for the metro areas it tracks, you'll see that this index shows prices were up in Lansing about 5 percent or so in the fourth quarter vs. a year ago.

A time for caution

That said, however, with sales slowing and power shifting from sellers to buyers, I think now should be a time for caution in the housing market for anyone looking to buy -- and that goes double for someone in markets like Lansing where a major industry is having problems.

I'm not advocating that anyone try to time the housing market. That can be tough because house prices are often "sticky" -- that is, even when sales slow, they don't usually drop as quickly as, say, stock prices, because most people can put off selling their home if they can't get the price they want.

But you certainly shouldn't feel a need to rush to buy now, either. I'd take my time shopping around, getting the feel of different neighborhoods and trying to get a sense of the latest trends in prices. And if I found that prices are a bit soft, I'd factor that into any offer I make -- and allow for some negotiation back and forth.

You may very well find that many still haven't adjusted to the new realities of a slowing market. Which means you may have to be prepared to go through the offer-and-negotiation process several times. If all this drags out and means you have to end up renting another year, well, I think at this point that would be better than paying a higher price than you think is warranted.

Don't flip too soon

One final note: given the high costs involved in buying and selling a home -- mortgage origination fees, points, title costs, attorney fees, appraisals, etc. -- it can take several years of appreciation just to recoup expenses. As a result, I don't think it usually pays to even think of buying unless you plan on staying at least five years, whatever market you're in.

In your case, I think this is especially true. If you check out those OFHEO figures I mentioned earlier, you'll find that during the recession of the early 1980s, prices in Lansing took quite a dip from their pre-recession peak, falling about 25 percent. And they didn't recover until 1987.

I note this not to single out Lansing. Indeed, after the big runup in housing prices in the late 1980s and early 1990s, several hot East and West Coast markets also suffered big declines from which it took them many years to rebound.

These sorts of declines, though no fun, aren't necessarily financially devastating if you stay put during them. Where problems can arise, though, is if you really need to sell, say, because of a job switch or layoff.

So as you're shopping around, consider not just the shape of the housing market, but how long you're likely to live in the home. If you really doubt you'll stay there at least five years, then in my opinion, you probably shouldn't be thinking of buying at all.

_________________________

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.