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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Property prices in desirable parts of California probably will never stabilize at 100 months rent because of combination of premiums buyers are willing to pay and the distortions caused by prop 13. However, long-term prices have tracked around 4x income and hit around 10x during the bubble. So that might predict a $650K bubble house going for about $250k

Posted by: doug liser | May 15, 2011 at 10:42 AM

Erik Hurst from the University of Chicago uses a different methodology than Case-Schiller. He says CS overstates moves.

Based on his predictions of a couple of years ago, we only have around 10% left on a macro basis. Individual markets might be different.

Posted by: Jeff Carter | May 15, 2011 at 11:19 AM


Posted by: MILE | May 16, 2011 at 12:27 AM

I am rather puzzled as to what the rent valuations are based on. AFIK there is no mechanism that requires landlords to report to any centralized statistical agency what rents their tenants are actually paying, along with information that would permit comparison to actual sale prices for comparable homes. Here in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, at bubble peak there were hardly any single-family homes for rent, and none comparable to mid- to high-end properties. Homes that in the past might have been rentals had been bought up by flippers and were being rehabbed -- or torn down to be replaced with million-dollar McMansions.

Now, there is a glut of homes for rent, but nearly all at prices that reflect not what the market will pay, but rather what the homeowner needs to pay their mortgage and taxes. As the owners are not business-people and are in a state of denial, they refuse to lower the asking rent, preferring zero income to any income less than mortgage plus taxes. So one finds the same homes on the MLS rental pages six months, nine months, or even more. Recently, one sees an occasional reduction in asking rent --- but not enough to move the property. I suspect that many of the homes that have disappeared from the MLS rental listings have disappeared not because they were rented, but because they were finally foreclosed upon. But if they were rented, I suspect it was at a monthly rate well below the asking rent.

So if the rents used for the price-to-rent ratio calculation are the MLS asking rents, they are probably significantly overstated.

Moreover, since the market is obviously not clearing at the rents being currently being asked, actual rents will have to end up significantly lower than the rents currently being paid for the homes that do rent, if the additional homes (which are effectively a "shadow inventory") are ever going to actually be rented.

Posted by: jm | May 16, 2011 at 03:24 AM

Zillow is half the problem. They estimate my house on the basis of never seeing it, nor ever seeing the improvements I've made. They have a statistical model they follow, but I own a ranch house on a full ace, and in my area there are probably 1 or 2 similar houses for sale, so there is no statistically valid sample to put into their model.

The other half is the estimators that do the same thing. They don't look at a house, they don't have a valid statistical sample, so there numbers are irrelevant.

The value of a house is what a buyer and seller say it is. The only other basis to use is build or rebuild cost. So, let's be honest, the system is the problem.

If you really want to solve he problem, reenact Glass Steagall, thereby forcing the banks to lend money in order to make a profit instead of gambling on derivatives. They don't lend, they die. As Ben Johnson said, "The prospect of hanging has a way of concentrating the mind."

Posted by: Don Hiorth | May 16, 2011 at 08:30 AM

@Virginia - "Using that measure of affordability, buying a house is actually more affordable now than in the past because of current low rates."

If you are a first time buyer, this could be an okay time to buy - but prices are still significantly higher than in the late 1990s, and it seems that they will continue to decline through the next 12 - 18 months. And employment uncertainties/wage stagnation could make buying a bit tricky today.

If you are NOT a first time buyer, but a homeowner looking to sell, the price to rent ratio is irrelevant. The market value of your home has tanked significantly in the last few years. That's a serious decline in the net worth of a middle-class home owner.

Posted by: Main Street Muse | May 16, 2011 at 12:20 PM

But when bubbles burst don't prices normally overshoot to the downside? If house prices are "average" now, wouldn't this suggest that they still have a lot further to fall?

Posted by: John Smith | May 17, 2011 at 07:17 AM

The price/rent ratio probably should not compare the price to rent of equivalent houses. I am a renter now, but if I ever do decide to buy a house, I would buy a house much larger than the one I am renting now.

Posted by: skr | May 31, 2011 at 05:15 PM

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