Housing burns to the ground

With vacations over and the holidays coming fast, home buying is beginning to slow down. So, given all of the predictions for 2016 (including mine), let’s review the better part of the 2016 home-buying season and see what we’ve learned, with an eye toward 2017.

1. Refis have finally dried up

The death of refis has been greatly exaggerated for a long time now, but given recent data and analysis, it may finally be here. Simply put, rates can’t get any lower, and those who qualified for refis have already done them. Given that refis have been the largest growth driver for the mortgage industry, banks need to find new opportunities to stimulate new purchases and borrowing.

2. Buyers want ‘new’ homes

The good news is that buyers want to own a home and that sales of newly constructed homes is healthy compared to recent years. However, existing home sales are down, partly because homeowners have been too cautious to upgrade. This has resulted in low existing-home inventory, especially at the starter home level.

3. Homebuyer confidence is strong (though maybe not for women)

Millennials, pegged as fiscally conservative, are increasingly more careful about what they do with their money. Still, even with economic, security and political concerns beyond their control, they want to own. But it must be on their terms: They are used to the flexibility and control renting affords, and given that 86% plan to stay in new homes fewer than seven years, prospective buyers need more assurance than a 30-year mortgage provides. Women are far more cautious in this area than men and need an even greater sense of security before they are willing to commit to buying or upgrading.

4. Low rates persist

Despite higher consumer confidence and lower unemployment, key indicators of economic growth such as GDP and international economic concerns such as Brexithave kept Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen from raising interest rates – for now. Having rates stuck so low for so long will likely affect new home sales in the future. When rates inevitably do rise, possibly by the end of 2016, prospective homebuyers will probably overreact and pull back. The good news is that rising rates should lead to falling home prices.

5. Real estate is still local

With the yin comes the yang. While areas like Atlanta are experiencing the highest sales prices on record, other areas, like much of Connecticut, have been hit hard. Jobs and industry are the biggest issues here. GE leaving with 10,000 jobs hurt the Nutmeg state much like dropping gas prices hurt Houston and other oil-producing towns. Given that the average job tenure of a Millennial is 2.8 years, job mobility and the need for housing flexibility can have big impacts on them as homebuyers.

Where does this leave us for 2017? In a word, uncertain. There are a lot of what-if and wait-and-see scenarios right now, but if I had to guess, home prices will likely normalize and drop for several reasons:

1. Naturally, they have to

That’s the way markets work. They go up and down. Fortunately, real estate value has historically risen over the long term. But given the current highs, we may see correction in some overheated markets.

2. Higher rates are likely (at some point)

If it costs more to borrow, home prices will have to come down. Although buyers will head to the sidelines, more convertible-rate homeowners will need to sell as their current low-rate mortgage terms expire.

3. Inventory will rise

With new construction shifting from multifamily to single-family homes, the market should become less competitive.

4. We must still address affordability

Tackling this issue will have some kind of direct or indirect impact on prices if public policy efforts succeed. But again, if people can’t afford homes, the market should naturally adjust.