The housing market downturn isn’t over

Right out of the gate in 2023, the slumped U.S. housing market experienced an uptick in activity. Open houses got more foot traffic. Buyers started making serious offers. And, if priced right, homes in some markets received multiple offers.

“I got five new [buyer] leads in one week, which was unheard of in [late] 2022…[and] I have experienced a few transactions that astonished me,” Kristen Riffle, a real estate agent in Las Vegas, tells Fortune. “I wrote an offer on a home that was on the market for one day, in a subpar location…The agent got back to me and said she had multiple offers and the highest was $20,000 over list.”

What’s going on? Between early November and early February, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate slowly declined from 7.37% to 5.99%. Those lower rates, coupled with the start of the busy season and inventory levels remaining tight, gave the U.S. housing market a small but noticeable boost in activity to start the year.

But brokers and agents shouldn’t get too excited: Just as the U.S. housing market started to show some signs of life, mortgage rates rose again, making it harder to escape the ongoing housing market slump. In fact, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate of 6.78% on Thursday is the highest since early November.

This latest mortgage rate jump stings. Just look at the numbers.

A borrower who took on a $500,000 mortgage in early February at a 5.99% fixed rate would have gotten a monthly principal and interest payment of $2,995. At a 6.78% rate (i.e., the average rate on Thursday), a borrower would have a $3,253 monthly payment on the same size loan.

The reason mortgage rates are rising again is pretty straightforward: Recent economic data, including strong retail sales and job numbers, suggest it might take longer than expected for the Federal Reserve to tackle inflation. In anticipation of the Fed holding rates higher for longer, financial markets are already putting upward pressure on long-term rates like the 10-year Treasury and mortgage rates.

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Even before mortgage rates jumped back up to 6.87% this week, homebuying activity was still in the gutter. In fact, mortgage purchase applications for last week were down 43% on a year-over-year basis. That’s hardly a recovery.

Not to mention, January’s slight rebound in buying activity hasn’t stopped the bifurcated home price correction. Among the 400 biggest housing markets tracked by Zillow, 169 markets saw home prices tick lower in January. That includes hefty one-month declines in markets like Austin (–1.4%), Phoenix (–1.24%), and Atlanta (–0.44%).

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Since home prices started declining last summer, 276 of the nation’s 400 largest housing markets have seen seasonally adjusted home prices fall from their 2022 high point. That includes sharp declines in overheated markets like Austin (–7.9% from its 2022 peak), Boise (–8%), and Bend, Ore. (–8.2%). (Without seasonal adjustment, markets like Austin and Boise are down –12.6% and –11.6%, respectively.)

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How can the U.S. housing market sustain a recovery?

The answer is that housing affordability, which the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimates is worse now than it was at the height of the housing bubble in 2006, needs to improve. To achieve it, there are three levers: rising incomes, falling home values, and falling mortgage rates. Of those levers, mortgage rates can make a short-term difference.

When housing activity does begin to rise again, it doesn’t guarantee that home prices have bottomed out. Indeed, many housing analysts and economists believe national home prices will be the final housing metric to bottom out this cycle.

“Home prices are usually the last indicator to find a floor in a housing downturn, and we still think there’s a good amount of time ahead of us until that happens as long as rates stay 6% plus,” Rick Palacios Jr., head of research at John Burns Real Estate Consulting, tells Fortune.



Want to stay updated on the housing correction? Follow me on Twitter at @NewsLambert.

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