The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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May 13, 2011

Just how out of line are house prices?

In Wednesday's post, I referenced commentary from several bloggers regarding the sizeable decline in housing prices reported by Zillow earlier this week. As I discussed yesterday, the rat-through-the-snake process of working down existing and prospective distressed properties is likely far from over, and how that process plays out will no doubt have an impact on how much prices will ultimately adjust.

Recently, Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture blog featured an update of a New York Times chart that suggests there will be a significant adjustment going forward:

Prior to the crisis, I was persistently advised that the better way to think about the "right" home price is to focus on price-rent ratios, because rents reflect the fundamental flow of implicit or explicit income generated by a housing asset. In retrospect that advice looks pretty good, so I am inclined to think in those terms today. A simple back-of-the envelope calculation for this ratio—essentially comparing the path of the S&P/Case-Shiller composite price index for 20 metropolitan regions to the time path of the rent of primary residences in the consumer price index—tells a somewhat different story than the New York Times chart used in the aforementioned Ritholtz blog post:

According to this calculation, current prices have nearly returned to levels relative to rents that prevailed in the decade prior to the housing boom that began in the late 1990s.

Of course, the price-rent ratio is not the most sophisticated of calculations. David Leonhardt shows the results from other such calculations that suggest prices relative to rents are still elevated, at least relative to the average that prevailed in the 1990s. But the adjustment that would be required to bring current levels back into line with the precrisis average is still much lower than suggested by the Ritholtz graph.

How much farther prices fall is, I think, critical in the determination of how the economy will fare in the immediate future. Again, from President Lockhart:

"The housing sector also has indirect impacts on the economy. In particular, the direction of home prices is important for the economy because changes in home prices affect the health of both household and bank balance sheets. …

"The indirect influence of the housing sector on consumer activity and bank lending would almost certainly aggravate housing's impact on growth."

Here's hoping my chart is more predictive of housing prices than the alternative.

Update: The Calculated Risk blog does a thorough job and concludes that we don't have "to choose between real prices and price-to-rent graphs to ask 'how far out of line are house prices?' I think they are both showing that prices are not far above the historical lows."

Update: The Big Picture's Barry Ritholtz points me to his earlier argument against reliance on price-rent ratios.

Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

May 13, 2011 in Economic Growth and Development, Forecasts, Housing, Real Estate | Permalink


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I am trying to sell a house myself right now, and was shocked at the crash in housing values we see in our area (midwest). I'm seeing projections of 25% - 33% loss of value since 2006.

Unfortunately, I think prices have a ways to go before bottoming out. In my area, there are 18 months of housing stock on the market right now. We're competing with cheap foreclosures and short sales (both are at historic highs right now, I believe). In 2004, it took about 30 days to sell a house. Now it takes about 250 days. Try selling when you need to move immediately for a job opportunity.

Linking housing prices to rents might work in the "normal" environment. But we're so far outside of normal now that I think you're over-optimistic in your projections.

What historical period has had such a number of underwater mortgages? And isn't that all thanks to the models that assumed housing prices never diminished?

Economic models need to be revised to reflect current reality. Using a model that "is not the most sophisticated of calculations" won't get us out of this catastrophe. But it's certainly nice wishful thinking....

Posted by: Main Street Muse | May 13, 2011 at 11:52 AM

As long as we live in a world where interest rates never deviate from the current level, then "prices are in line with rent" If, however, for any reason interest rates may move towards long term trend lines...then it would be prudent to look at prices as a derivative of interest which case they are probably still far higher than a "normal" market could bare.

Posted by: Jay | May 13, 2011 at 12:59 PM

My neck of the woods, Sonoma, Calif property provides an indication of what direction other markets might experience when if ever foreclosure/distressed homes become a small percentage of the market. My upscale 55+ area has a good number of homes for sale and few are selling, prices continue to decline slowly but on a steady pace. Economist and others expect prices to hold or go up once the foreclosure process has run its course but the reality is that home prices are way out of line with income including price rent ratios. When using a price rent ratio use 100 times monthly rent as a baseline to get a good idea what local home prices should be. In my area most of these homes rent for about $1600 a month and owners try and sell between 350K and 500K, so based on the rent market these homes need to sell in the 160K range which is a long way from there bubble high of 650K or even current market prices which reflects a slow market. Maybe when and if these properties get down to reasonable price rent ratios they will sell.

Posted by: Ron Caldwell | May 13, 2011 at 04:30 PM

House price to rent is analogous to stock P/E ratio, and we know this can spend long periods of time well distant from its average value. So how much overshoot might we expect?

Posted by: dunkelblau | May 13, 2011 at 07:10 PM

"Here's hoping my chart is more predictive of housing prices than the alternative."

Isn't there something odd about senior employees of the Federal Reserve, the institution charged with primary responsibility for preserving the purchasing power of our currency, cheering (asset price) inflation?

Posted by: PatR | May 13, 2011 at 07:52 PM

Over and over again analysts use price/rent as if RENT was some kind of cosmic truth telling measure of value. Rents are quite volatile. Every bit as volatile as housing prices (if not more so). They very tremendously even within a small geographic area. The types and quality of rental housing also varies depending on when properties were built.

RIGHT NOW RENTS ARE WAY UP (in many areas) and vacancies are down. This is out of line with historical employment vs rent trends. These high rents obviously distort the price/rent ratio and there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that rent levels provide more truth of value than the housing prices themselves.

Posted by: Max Rockbin | May 13, 2011 at 11:30 PM

I think the above comments are a better indicator of what is really happening in today's real estate market than are models based upon historical data that is not likely to be repeated anytime soon.

I use proprietary software from (I have no financial interest in the site) and the volume of REO inventory, both current and in the pipeline is staggering in California. As short sales and REO re-sales re-set the comparable prices, sellers are being forced to accept lower and lower prices because their homes otherwise won't appraise at the contracted sales price.

Based upon this data, prices are now back to 2000 and the "deals" can be had for 1996 prices. I suspect we have a few more years, and perhaps another recession, before it will be time again to buy.

Posted by: Jeff Goodrich | May 14, 2011 at 11:42 AM

The interesting thing about price to rent measures is how different they are geographically. The areas that are clearly in a housing oversupply situation are incredibly cheap to buy vs rent (think of renting as buying plus buying a put on the house struck at the market) whereas other areas that are in "relative" equilibrium are not at all cheap on a buy vs rent measure. As an example take a look on zillow at the price of a three bedroom house in Dearborn Mi. How this all sorts itself out will be an interesting experiment. In the absence of easy (IE: high LTV-No doc) lending, the most reasonable hypothesis is much lower prices.

Posted by: Steve Fulton | May 14, 2011 at 12:03 PM

In parts of metro-Denver, rents are above my value to rent formula: value/income = 1 percent. I have used this formula for over 40 years so I haven't purchased but only a few Denver properties in the last 20 years. Now I am purchasing properties again but one has to be keenly aware of declining value neighborhoods and rising expenses but property taxes are declining.

Posted by: ron glandt | May 14, 2011 at 12:37 PM

@Main Street Muse. The price to rent ratio is just that, a ratio independent of interest rates at the time. I believe your suggestion is more in line of a housing affordability index, which takes into consideration the interest rate and therefore monthly payment at the time. Using that measure of affordability, buying a house is actually more affordable now than in the past because of current low rates. In other words, we are back to long term trend in price to rent ratio, but still below long term trend in interest rates, which indicates we have some padding to absorb an increase to historical 7%.

Another thought about the "bottom." Distressed properties pulling prices down significantly. Agreed. But, doesn't the price of new construction ultimately determine the long term "price point" of the market with "used" homes selling on average 15-20% below new construction for the same quality and square footage? Assuming a continued expansion in the population, the recycling of current inventory, or washing out of the shadow inventory will only last so long before new houses must be built. New construction has an absolute cost in terms of labor and commodities. Would be interesting to see a trend line of the cost of new construction per square foot over time.

Posted by: Virginia | May 14, 2011 at 04:15 PM

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