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It's the Economy, Stupid

Will Barack Obama's presidency see a return to economic boom times the way Bill Clinton's did? No one knows for sure, including—as they admitted themselves—the economists who provided a housing and economic outlook at the 2009 International Builders Show. Still, in these volatile times, it's good to be as informed as possible, so here is our Average Jane overview.

 

Good news first:

Housing affordability is at its highest levels since at least 1970, said David W. Berson, chief economist of mortgage insurer PMI Group.

Still-dropping prices should start boosting sales housing sales as early as the end of 2009, according to David Crowe, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders. The upswing will hit the midddle of the country, Crowe added, before it affects the housing markets where the biggest bubbles burst: California, Las Vegas, Florida and Arizona.

No one compared the current recession to the Great Depression. Frank E. Nothaft, chief economist of Freddie Mac, said he expects it to be "on par with" the recession of the early 1980s.

Mortgage rates are near historic lows, with Freddie Mac reporting an average 30-year-fixed rate of 5.12% with 0.7 points as of January 22. Nothaft said refinances have risen as a result. Depending on when you bought your home, this may be a good time to refinance.

It is still possible to get a mortgage, as long as you have a down payment, a good credit score, full documentation underwriting, and a conforming loan balance. Nothaft said so far in 2009, overall loan originations on single-family homes have increased 12% over 2008.

 

Now the bad news:

Unemployment, which hit 7.2% in December 2008, is almost certain to rise in 2009. Nothaft projected an unemployment rate of 8.7% by the fourth quarter of 2009.

Expect to see an increase in delinquency rates on prime conventional loans as a result, warned Nothaft. Job loss is the number one trigger factor in delinquency, he explained.

It will take two to three years for the residential building industry to stabilize, estimated Berson. That means housing starts returning to about 1.5 to 1.9 million annually; 2008 saw less than 1 million starts.

Getting a home equity line of credit (HELOC) for a remodel is tough, Nothaft said, because banks don't want to offer what amounts to a second mortgage. Depending on when you bought your home, you may want to consider a cash-out refinance of your first mortgage instead.

Those dropping prices that make it a good time to buy a house also make it a horrible time to sell. The PMI Group's latest U.S. Market Risk Index predicts that home prices will be lower in two years than they are now in more than half of the nation's largest metropolitan markets. The riskiest regions include Riverside, Los Angeles, and Anaheim in California; Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville in Florida; and Las Vegas. Markets at minimal risk include Pittsburgh, PA, as well as Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio in Texas.

 

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