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By Lisa Gibbs
June 23, 2014

Home buyers worried they will be stuck in bidding wars for a scarce number of homes can relax a little bit. The number of homes for sale in May is up 6% over last year, to 2.28 million, reported the National Association of Realtors.

At the current pace, it would take 5.6 months to sell all the homes on the market. Six months is considered a healthy balance between buyers and sellers. The 5.6 number means it’s still, on average, more of a sellers’ market, but far better than late 2012 and early 2013, when there was less than a five-month supply of homes.

For May, sales continued to strengthen after a “lackluster” first quarter, said NAR economist Lawrence Yun. The median price of existing homes for the country, which includes condos, was $213,400, up 5.1% over a year ago.

But let’s get back to inventory, which has been driving much of what’s been happening in housing.

Around late 2011, buyers began tiptoeing back into the market, eating into the oversupply of distressed properties that had swelled post-bust. A year later, more confident buyers and an investor boom pushed the pendulum toward housing shortage. This chart shows that trend and how it’s been easing so far this year.

 

This is great news, because in some cities buyers have become so frustrated by the scarce choices that they’ve given up. Especially in hot cities (Denver, all the big cities in Texas, southern California) and in the best neighborhoods in most cities, buying a home has become about how to win a bidding war.

Even now, homes are still selling relatively quickly—the median number of days a home spent on the market in May was 47. But at least that’s six days more than a year ago, giving buyers some room to breathe.

That in turn means a slowdown in the hefty price gains that have marked the last 18 months or so of the housing recovery, but the market needs more, Yun says. “Rising inventory bodes well for slower price growth and greater affordability,” he said in a statement. But “new home construction is still needed to keep prices and housing supply healthy in the long run.”

New construction is a bit wobbly, however. Yes, builders are building more homes, but they are mostly apartments (the rental market is still going gangbusters). Builders have been slow to commit, worried about the financial health of buyers. Economist Brad Hunter of MetroStudy, which analyzes the new home industry, says consumers are still skittish, but traffic through builders’ showrooms continues to improve. So sales should rise soon, he says.

As with everything real estate, it’s all local. Construction is healthy in southern California, Texas and Florida, while Arizona and Nevada are down, Hunter notes.

And, it matters where you fall on the income spectrum. That’s another key aspect of the current housing market: Pricier homes are selling better, while the market for first-time home buyers is depressed. The percentage of first-time home buyers in the existing-home space fell again in May, to 27%, according to NAR.

In new construction, builders have begun targeting young buyers with lower-priced homes, but Hunter sees too many obstacles: high student loan debt and low employment among millennials.

Another obstacle: lending standards. The credit score needed to get a mortgage has been trending down, but very slowly. Real Estate Economy Watch, writing about an Ellie Mae report, said 32% of closed loans had an average credit score of under 700 in May, compared with 27% a year ago. The median credit score for purchases (not refinances): 755.

The median scores for FHA loans fell to 684 from 695 last year–FHA loans are favored by first-time buyers because of low down payment requirements.

The trend should draw more potential buyers off the fence, says Cameron Findlay, chief economist for Discover Home Loans. “When everyone’s talking about how difficult it is, if you’re a borrower on the cusp, you don’t bother going through the hoops and trying to apply, you just stay back,” he says. “Now they’re saying, ‘Let me see.’”

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