New housing data may signal a passing opportunity

By Richard

The latest housing information indicates that home prices have continued to make a slow and steady recovery. That's good news for the economy in general, and specifically could help homeowners and depositors in savings accounts. However, it should be a call to action for potential home buyers, who otherwise could miss a rare opportunity.

The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index rose in July, according to figures released on September 25. It's too early to call this a rally, but then again, an orderly recovery in the housing market may be better than a return to the runaway increases of the housing boom.

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Healthier than people think?

Overall, the housing market may be healthier than many realize. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index has now increased for six consecutive months. Certainly, prices are nowhere near back to where they were during the peak of the housing boom, but that may be an unrealistic -- and unhealthy -- target.

Looking longer term, the S&P/Case-Shiller Index is up about 40 percent from where it was in January of 2000. So, if you look at the housing boom as an aberration, what you see is that housing prices have still made solid gains over the long run. Ultimately, modest price increases are much healthier for the housing market than a steep hike in prices, which can freeze many potential buyers out of the market and cause some actual buyers to get in over their heads.

Action at the low end

The New York Times reported last week that recent progress in the housing market is primarily at the low end. Prices in the lowest tier of the housing market are rising faster than those for mid-priced or expensive homes. This too is a sign of health: The lower end represents a much broader base of homeowners than the middle or upper tiers of the market. That signals wider support for the housing market, and for the economy as a whole.

A fleeting opportunity

Good news for the economy might even translate into good news for savings accounts and other deposits, which have seen interest rates driven down to near zero by weak loan demand and Federal Reserve intervention.

Conversely though, the potential benefit to savings and money market rates is a reminder of why the opportunity for would-be home buyers might be fleeting. Right now, conditions for buyers are exceptionally good, because current mortgage rates are at record low levels, and housing prices are still well off their peaks.

Already though, recent numbers indicate that housing prices are starting to move. If this continues, mortgage rates might follow. In particular, if lower-end housing prices are now making the strongest gains, people looking to enter the housing market for the first time should prepare to act.

Again, the housing market may be better off than people know. As many found out during the housing boom, waiting until everyone knows the market is healthy before you buy can be an expensive proposition.

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