America’s housing market is showing the first signs of trouble because of the coronavirus pandemic.
By Jacob Passy, Market Watch
March started out as a strong month for the U.S. housing market — but by the second half of the month, the first indications that the coronavirus pandemic would weigh on home-selling activity began to emerge, according to a new report from Realtor.com.
In the weeks ending March 21 and March 28, the number of newly-listed properties fell by 13.1% and 34% respectively when compared with the same period a year ago, Realtor.com found. This is an indication that home sellers may be holding off on listing their properties right now.
The pace of home-price growth also slowed notably in the latter half of the month, according to the report. Home list prices were only up 3.3% year-over-year for the week ending March 21, and 2.5% for the following week. This represented the slowest pace of listing price growth since Realtor.com started tracking this data in 2013.
“Our inventory and listing data can provide some early insight into how housing markets may be impacted by COVID-19, but the situation and reactions to it are still rapidly evolving,” Realtor.com chief economist Danielle Hale wrote in the report.
“The U.S. housing market had a good start to the year. Despite still-limited homes for sale, buyers were buying and builders were building,” she wrote. “The pandemic and virus-fighting measures appear to be disrupting that initial momentum as both buyers and sellers adopt a more cautious posture.”
Real-estate firms have taken steps to brace for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. So-called iBuyers including Zillow US:ZG and Redfin US:RDFN that purchase homes from sellers and then sell them for a profit had wound down their home-buying operations in anticipation of an economic downturn. Real-estate brokers, incuding Redfin and Re/Max US:RMAX , had also shifted toward virtual home tours as open houses became verboten in the wake of social-distancing recommendations.
And other recent reports have shown additional signs of a slowdown in the housing market. LendingTree US:TREE released an analysis of Google US:GOOG search data analyzing the popularity of the search term “homes for sale” across the country’s 50 largest metro areas. Searches for “homes for sale” have fallen across all 50 cities in the study from their peak levels in 2020 thus far.
LendingTree estimated that these Google searches could drop some 63% compared with last year if the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak remains substantial for the next two months. A drop in web searches could presage a decline in home sales.
Another sign that home sales will slump this spring: Mortgage applications. The volume of mortgage applications for loans used to purchase homes was down 24% compared with a year ago for the week ending March 27, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association. That’s in spite of mortgage rates being near historic lows. Comparatively, the volume of refinance applications was 168% higher than a year ago.
Before the coronavirus pandemic flared up, the U.S. housing market was on relatively solid footing. While the number of homes for sale remained low — constraining sales activity to an extent — demand among buyers was still quite high. Low mortgage rates had fueled an early start to the spring home-buying season, with homes selling four days faster in March when compared with 2019 levels, Realtor.com found.
The jump in jobless claims has stoked concerns of a repeat of the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis that preceded it. But housing economists argue that this is unlikely to be the case.
“While housing led the recession in 2008-2009, this time it may be poised to bring us out of it,” Mark Fleming, chief economist for title insurance company First American Financial Corporation US:FAF , wrote in a report this week.
Unlike in the 2000s, the housing market in the U.S. is not overbuilt, Fleming argued, making it less likely that a large swath of vacant properties will crater the home values for homeowners. Rising home values and stricter lending standards have also meant that homeowners are sitting on historically high amounts of home equity.
“The housing market will not go unscathed, as consumer confidence and a strong labor market are essential in the decision to purchase a home,” Fleming wrote. “Yet, this time, housing is a casualty of a public health crisis turned economic, not the cause of an economic crisis.”