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Case-Shiller reaction: What to make of record high home prices

Zillow, Quicken Loans, First American and others weigh in

The latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Indices showed that home prices hit a 31-month high in January, but will those record prices be a speed bump or a brick wall for home buying moving forward?

Opinions appear to be a bit mixed in that regard, with some analysts viewing January’s data as a significant drawback for certain segments of the home-buying market, while others say the rising prices aren’t a concern, yet.

Case in point: Zillow Chief Economist Svenja Gudell said the rising prices won’t impact home buying, but another factor could dampen 2017’s prospects – rising interest rates.

“Today’s Case-Shiller data showed continued growth in home prices, but don’t account for the millions of home shoppers nationwide who pushed the start of their home shopping efforts into February and early March, hoping to get a jump on their competition in the face of persistently low inventory,” Gudell said Tuesday.

“By now, the familiar dynamics driving the U.S. housing market to new heights – namely, high demand from home buyers and limited supply of homes for sale – are well-entrenched, and the next few months look to be as competitive and fast-moving as ever,” Gudell continued.

“Over the long term, the prospect of rising mortgage interest rates looms large over the market. Rising rates may cool rapid home price growth – especially in more-expensive coastal markets – but will also dent overall home affordability,” Gudell added. “But rates are rising slowly and what inventory is available continues to fly off the shelves. Nobody should expect these overall market forces to shift meaningfully overnight.”

Trulia’s senior economist, Cheryl Young, said that the impact of rising prices and rising rates will really be felt by would-be, first-time buyers.

“There is little sign of relief from high home prices as we enter the spring home-buying season. The tough buying market is characterized by competition driven by low inventory and challenges for first-time homebuyers as prices outpace income growth,” Young said.

“Low inventory continues to drive prices higher and indicates spring home-buying season will be a challenge for first-time homebuyers,” Young continued.

“Mortgage rates are trending lower than expected despite the Fed rate hike earlier this month,” Young said. “This points to uncertainty in the financial markets, which will continue to color mortgage rate performance and keep home prices tracking higher.”

Quicken Loans Vice President Bill Banfield said the latest data just continues the ongoing story of the housing market these days.

“Home prices continue to reach new heights, propelled by the lack of available housing,” Banfield. “This is the narrative we have heard many times, and it is likely to continue until construction increases and provides more options to both move-up and first-time buyers.”

On the other hand, First American Chief Economist Mark Fleming suggested that January’s house price data and the specter of rising interest rates won’t actually impact home buying because houses will remain affordable even as prices and interest rates rise.

“Reports have suggested, or surely will, that this fast pace of house-price appreciation will make housing unaffordable and out of reach for many American households,” Fleming said.

“Add to that more rate increases from the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee and the housing market will surely struggle," Fleming continued. “Not so. The 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage is currently a little over 4%, well below the historical long-run average of approximately 6.5% since 1990.”

Fleming said that even if interest rates rise to 4.75%, for example, buyers will still be able to afford a home. The real impact won’t come until interest rates near 5.5%, Fleming said.

“Even at the higher mortgage rate, for the majority of markets a median income can purchase more than the median priced house. Why is this? The house-buying power that borrowers have, even with rates below 5%, still remains historically strong,” Fleming said.

“It would take a significantly higher mortgage rate to erode the real, house-buying power adjusted, price of housing.” Fleming added.

“Rising rates are not expected to slow down demand this spring home-buying season," Fleming continued.

“It is clear that indefinite nominal price appreciation is unsustainable. That lesson was learned a decade ago,” Fleming concluded. “Now, historically high house buying power caused by low mortgage rates and economic growth set against a low inventory of homes for sale will drive a strong sellers’ market and further rising prices this spring. And it’s not, at least yet, cause for concern.”

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