Housing rebound: When to spot one

Nationally, there's still a dark cloud hanging over housing. But to check the health of your local region, look for a few key clues.

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By Amanda Gengler, Money Magazine writer

The price-to-rent ratio has fallen to 22, but that's nearly twice as high as it was in 2000.
housing inventory of 6.3 months is good. But affordability is still a big issue in the Bay Area.
its affordability index reading has risen to 80. That's a good sign. So is its price-to-rent ratio of 13.

Note: Price forecast from May 2008 to May 2009. Sources: Moody's Economy.com, Fiserv Lending Solutions, National Association of Home Builders, California Association of Realtors
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(Money Magazine) -- This is already one of the worst national housing downturns in half a century. But what's really scary is that judging from the still-huge overhang of unsold homes - one of the key indicators of the market's prospects - things could get worse. In fact, much worse if the economy slips into recession.

But real estate is a local game. Your region could be in far better shape than the country as a whole. Median prices for existing single-family homes in a third of the country's metro areas are actually higher than they were a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Remember too that during the boom, regions moved at different times. Las Vegas and San Diego were among the first markets to take off. Boston spiked early as well, but not to the same degree. And Albuquerque and Portland, Ore. soared later.

Just as cities moved independently on the way up, they're not moving in lockstep on the way down. That's why "it's more important than ever to examine what's happening in your city," says NAR president Richard Gaylord.

This isn't to say that you'll be able to precisely time the market. But keeping track of a few key indicators will give you a general sense if a turnaround is near.

For starters, pay attention to changes in your local job market. The more new jobs created, the greater the demand for homes. Conversely, an uptick in unemployment - or a persistently weak labor market - can warn you a recovery may still be far away.

Of course, this is just one indicator. Here are the key questions to answer to determine how healthy your market is - and if it's anywhere near coming back.

Is the housing stock shrinking?

The problem in most markets today is simple: too many homes and too few buyers. Therefore, the best signposts to look for are a significant reduction in the supply of homes and a jump in sales, says Mike Larson, a real estate analyst with Weiss Research.

But getting local data on inventory and sales isn't that simple. Your local realtors association or a competent agent should be able to provide you with basic supply and sales figures, though the type of data will vary. So be sure to ask for as much as you can: monthly inventory of homes in your area, average days on the market and total number of homes for sale.

The typical inventory in a stable market is about six months' worth of houses, and homes tend to stay on the market for about 90 days, says David Stiff, chief economist at Fiserv Lending Solutions.

Ideally, you'd want your market to be close to these levels. San Francisco, for instance, is slightly above it, with 6.3 months of homes for sale. But because of the local nature of housing, it's more important to see whether your region's housing stock is returning to its pre-housing-bubble levels.

As for sales, because housing is seasonal, pay attention to year-over-year growth in home sales, not monthly changes, says Joel Naroff, chief economist for Commerce Bank. In other words, see how many homes sold this August vs. last August - not July.

Are home prices falling at a slower pace?

A telltale sign of your local market starting to heal: The rate of home-price declines should start to slow. You can find quarterly price data for about 150 major metro areas at the Web site of the National Association of Realtors. For monthly figures, ask your agent or local real estate association. Some agents will even provide stats for homes in particular price ranges and zip codes.

If you start to track these figures, be patient. "You need at least three months of smaller price drops to be confident the market is really shifting, since housing numbers are really volatile and are affected a lot by the weather," says Patrick Newport, an economist with Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm.

So if you're a buyer who's looking for the best deal, wait at least that long. If you're a seller, be even more patient. That's because even if prices stabilize, they could stay low for a while. In fact, it likely will be months before prices rise again.

Is it cheaper to rent than to own?

Here's a useful back-of-the envelope calculation: Take the price of the type of home you want in your market. Now call around or ask your broker to see how much it would cost annually to rent a similar property in the same region. For example, if you can purchase a home for $540,000 but can rent a similar one for $36,000 a year, your so-called price-to-rent ratio would be 15.

In general, buying starts to look attractive when the P/R ratio is around 15 or lower, says Newport. (The current national average is 12.5.) As your market's P/R ratio falls, more sellers are likely to come into the market. So demand could pick up and help stabilize home prices.

Of course, 15 is just a ball park. For a more sophisticated analysis, see how your market's current P/R stacks up to its pre-housing-boom levels. For price-to-rent ratios for dozens of key markets, check out the table at the bottom of the page. Then, for comparison, ask local realtors and rental agencies for an estimate of prices and rents back at the start of this decade.

In Miami, for instance, the ratio jumped from 12 in 2000 to nearly 30 in six years, according to Moody's Economy.com. It has since fallen to 22, but that's nearly double what it was at the start of the decade. "That's a pretty big premium," says Larson.

Are houses more affordable?

Unless a significant percentage of households in a market can afford to buy homes there, sales won't rise. It's as simple as that. So check your region's affordability level.

The National Association of Home Builders calculates this figure - which it calls its housing opportunity index - for about 220 metro areas. The index considers a home "affordable" if no more than 28% of median family income in that area is required to pay for it.

The national average is 53.8, which means that slightly more than half of the homes purchased recently were deemed to be affordable. But again, it's not fair simply to compare local data with national averages. So if you really want to know if conditions are improving, check if your region's affordability index reading is climbing. In St. Louis, affordability has risen from 77% a year ago to 80% today.

Now there's one more indicator you might be aware of: foreclosures. The rate of foreclosures in your region is certainly one sign of the health of your market. But this is a lagging indicator. It can sometimes take six months or more from when a homeowner first defaults to foreclosure.

Also, remember that a primary reason defaults are occurring today is that home prices are tumbling. With no equity, owners cannot refinance out of unaffordable mortgages. To refinance, then, many homeowners would have to see prices not just stabilize but rise.

So "by the time foreclosures peak and start falling, the market will have already bottomed out and turned around," says Larson. In other words, buyers will have missed the sweet spot.

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Housing Price-to-Rent Ratios
A market's price-to-rent ratio measures how much it costs to purchase a home, relative to what it costs to rent a similar one for a year. As the P/R ratio falls, more buyers are likely to enter the market. While P/R ratios in many markets have come down lately, they're still high relative to their long-term average.
  2008 (First Quarter) Peak 2000 (First Quarter) 15-year average
Atlanta 17.3 19.8 13.6 15.1
Austin 19.4 19.4 16.7 16.6
Baltimore 20.1 21.4 10.8 13.2
Boston 20.5 24.8 16.2 18.4
Charlotte 25.9 27.0 16.1 18.8
Chicago 20.8 24.4 15.3 18.5
Cincinnati 14.3 16.4 15.4 15.1
Cleveland 11.4 15.6 14.3 14.3
Columbus 16.8 20.0 16.8 17.1
Dallas - Fort Worth 16.6 18.5 15.3 16.1
Denver 21.5 25.5 18.1 19.6
Detroit 9.8 12.6 11.8 11.0
East Bay, CA 42.0 50.0 28.3 32.7
Fort Lauderdale 22.6 28.7 12.3 16.4
Hartford 19.5 20.4 13.5 15.2
Honolulu 32.6 37.5 21.4 26.0
Houston 15.9 16.7 13.6 14.4
Indianapolis 14.3 16.3 14.6 14.9
Inland Empire 20.2 29.9 14.2 19.0
Jacksonville 19.0 21.2 12.5 14.7
Kansas City 15.4 17.5 14.1 15.0
Las Vegas 22.7 31.9 15.1 19.4
Long Island 23.6 25.7 12.2 16.3
Los Angeles 20.0 27.4 11.5 16.4
Memphis 17.4 22.4 16.3 18.1
Miami 22.4 28.2 12.4 16.9
Milwaukee 22.8 24.5 17.1 18.7
Minneapolis 17.2 21.4 14.0 15.8
Nashville 25.6 26.8 18.5 20.9
New Orleans 15.5 25.6 14.0 15.0
New York 15.6 18.9 9.5 12.1
Norfolk 25.9 26.6 16.1 18.4
North - Central New Jersey 20.5 21.3 12.4 14.7
Oklahoma City 14.5 16.3 11.2 12.9
Orange County 29.9 40.0 19.9 25.1
Orlando 22.2 26.7 11.6 15.5
Palm Beach County 24.9 33.5 12.4 18.2
Philadelphia 17.7 18.5 9.1 12.8
Phoenix 19.0 24.8 12.6 14.5
Pittsburgh 11.9 12.2 10.1 10.7
Portland 30.5 32.1 19.8 21.7
Raleigh 27.2 27.8 17.5 19.8
Richmond 23.9 25.6 15.3 17.4
Sacramento 21.2 33.8 13.9 19.9
Salt Lake City 22.6 23.7 15.9 16.8
San Antonio 17.8 18.0 12.3 13.8
San Diego 25.1 37.4 18.4 23.1
San Francisco 32.9 40.0 25.8 28.1
San Jose 38.5 42.9 25.0 28.2
Seattle 34.9 37.9 19.9 24.3
St. Louis 12.9 16.6 13.0 14.0
Stamford 23.8 26.8 20.9 22.2
Tampa 19.3 23.5 12.4 14.9
Washington - Nor. VA - MD 22.0 28.6 11.1 16.5
U.S. 12.5 15.5 10.2 11.4
Sources: PPR, National Association of Realtors, Moody's Economy.com
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