More Housing Market Blues?

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There’s more bad news out about housing today. The prices of homes fell in more than 75% of U.S. cities in the first quarter, according to the National Association of Realtors. The data is stoking a new wave of bearishness on when the housing market will bottom. But as Stephen Gandel points out in yesterday’s blog, odds of a turnaround in housing are actually looking up. Mortgage rates are the lowest they’ve been all year, and credit is loosening up. It’s just that people aren’t buying yet.

Why? As Steve notes, buyers haven’t been demanding loans because of the dowdy jobs market and pessimism about when housing prices will start to head up. But with the jobs market perking up, housing may soon follow.

Of course, some bears think housing prices are still falling because the homebuyer’s tax credit inflated housing demand last year. See this graphic on Barry Ritholtz’s blog:

Whether home prices are headed up or down from here, a key takeaway is that the housing stimulus didn’t do its job. In fact, SmartMoney’s Jack Hough makes the case that first-time homebuyers who bought under the tax credit actually lost more in price declines than they got from the program.

The median home value fell to about $170,000 in March from $185,000 a year earlier, according to That means a buyer who closed on a house just before the tax-credit program expired in April 2010 collected $8,000 but has since lost $15,000 in value. Those who bought earlier in the program have done worse; the median price is down $20,000 from March 2009.

In that case, more meddling in the housing market hasn’t lessened the pain for Americans. It’s only dragged it out.