The housing market appears to be hurting. Last week we learned that sales of new homes plunged 14.5% in March compared to February, while sales of existing homes fell slightly month-to-month, too. Meanwhile, demand for home loans have hit a 14-year low in the first quarter, according to industry newsletter Inside Mortgage Finance.
But today the National Association of Realtors reported that pending home sales in March rose for the first time in nine months. They were up 3.4% from February, but down 7.9% from a year ago.
Heidi Moore, U.S. finance and economics editor at The Guardian, called the housing recovery a sham last June and in the video above says the latest run of weak data suggests the same concerns she raised when the recovery was humming along last summer. Moore says the recent slowdown reveals the recovery was in fact “dubious” and based on investor demand versus real homebuyers.
Others blame this year’s unseasonably cold weather along with higher mortgage rates for the slow start to the spring selling season. “Weather has been blamed for a lot, and it’s true it has some role, but there are so many other metrics that go in the direction of real trouble,” says Moore. “People haven’t been able to borrow for a mortgage for years — that has nothing to do with the weather, I promise you.” The same goes for issues like rising prices and low supply, she adds.
When it comes to the impact of these real estate conditions more broadly, Neil Irwin argues in the New York Times’ Upshot that the housing market is still stalling the economy. He points out that investment in residential property remains a smaller share of the overall economy than at any time since World War II, contributing less to growth than in past downturns, including the early 1980s when mortgage rates were 20% (compared to 4.5% currently).
Irwin argues if more people were buying homes and building returned to its postwar average as a share of the economy, growth would jump to 4% and about 1.5 million more jobs would be created. He says the main factor holding housing back is demand: Fewer people can or want to start a household of their own.
In Moore’s view, it’s the other way around: It’s the economy that’s slowing the housing market. Factors including stagnant wages, high unemployment and high household and student loan debt are reasons why people aren’t able to buy houses, says Moore. In other words, because the economy is stuck, the housing market is too.