POST WRITTEN BY
CURBED | JEFF ANDREWS
Stocks are tanking as the virus spreads. Will housing follow?
Few homes look their best in the dirty grays of late winter, which is, in part, why homebuying season coincides with the arrival of spring. This year, however, the crocuses that can make a house look that much nicer are showing up alongside the less reassuring news of a virus circling the globe.
The rapid spread of COVID-19—more commonly referred to as coronavirus or novel coronavirus—has claimed more than 3,000 lives. Conferences and sporting events are being canceled, Americans are stockpiling groceries in preparation for the worst, and the stock market has dropped almost 10 percent since February 24.
If you’re in the market for a house, all this uncertainty might have you worried about the housing market. Will it suffer a swoon similar to Wall Street? There are a few ways the virus could effect the housing market that you should be aware of—but before we get into the details, you can breath a sigh of relief, because a housing catastrophe on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis is almost certainly not going to happen.
There are over 300 cases currently confirmed in the United States. The countries where the virus has hit the hardest—namely China, where nearly 80,000 cases have been documented—are global manufacturing hubs that corporations use as suppliers. China’s economy has been brought to a standstill as a result of the virus, and if that continues it could lead to further economic fallout.
However, historically low inventory, a humming economy, and rock-bottom mortgage rates are setting the stage for a highly competitive homebuying season.
Coronavirus already pushing mortgage rates lower
The current dip in the stock market is being caused by the possibility that the new coronavirus will disrupt global supply lines, damage corporate earnings, and thus make companies less valuable. But it will take some time for all of that to shake out and to see what the actual effect of the outbreak is on business.
But what matters more for housing is bonds, the price of which affect mortgage rates. When investors start thinking the stock market is too risky—like right now—they sell their stocks and buy bonds. The increased demand pushes the price of bonds higher. The higher the price of bonds, the lower the interest payment—called the yield—is relative to the price. When bond yields are lower, mortgage rates are lower, too.
This is why mortgage rates have dropped as a result of coronavirus. Rates are down to around 3.5 percent, and the Federal Reserve announced earlier this week that it was cutting its target interest rate by a half percentage point, which typically would cause mortgage rates to fall even further.
However, mortgage rates are already at three-year lows, and it’s an open question how low mortgage lenders are willing to go, regardless of whether the Federal Reserve cuts its target rate.
Where the housing market currently stands
The housing market is, in a word, tight. Consider Seattle, where home prices have risen dramatically as it has become one of the country’s leading tech hubs. And while the nation as a whole is suffering from housing shortages, Seattle’s available homes for sale dropped a dramatic 27.6 percent year-over-year in January.
The housing market in other cities isn’t much better off: supply is at near record lows nationwide, and demand is near an all-time high. This combination means home prices are also near all-time highs in most cities as many potential buyers are bidding on a limited supply of homes for sale.
At the end of 2019, the number of houses for sale dropped even lower, particularly on the West Coast. Compared to a year ago, some cities saw double-digit percentage decreases in available homes for sale, although that is partly a function of there having been a supply spike in the second half of 2019, so the decrease looks more stark than it otherwise would.
But the supply spike was short lived. “It’s actually back down near record lows in terms of the level of inventory for many markets and the country as a whole,” says Jeff Tucker, an economist with Zillow.
On the demand side, key indicators suggest there will be a lot of buyers in the market. Low unemployment, solid wage growth, and low mortgage rates are all signals of high demand. Todd Teta of ATTOM Data Solutions, a real estate data provider, says they’ve seen unusually high web traffic to real estate portals like Zillow and Redfin.
“We look at the portals, and traffic was way up relative to seasonality than what you saw in January of 2019,” he says. “All those indicators are looking pretty strong.”
It’s hard to forget the recent history, but while the 2008 financial crisis saw both the housing and stock markets drop in tandem, this was an aberration in so many ways; the housing market crash was ultimately the cause of the stock market crash. Typically the housing market isn’t tied to swings in the stock market, because people don’t buy houses purely as an investment. Housing is a basic need, and the decision to buy one is usually prompted by entering a new stage of life.
A newly married couple is moving in together and is buying a house. A couple is having a kid and needs more space to accommodate the baby so they buy bigger house. Empty nesters have more house than they need after their kids go to college, so they downgrade to a smaller house.
A stock market correction doesn’t change these circumstances for people. Even in full-blown recessions, the housing market is incredibly durable. In some previous recessions home prices have actually gone up.
Are homebuilder supply lines being disrupted by coronavirus?
The short answer is yes. Nearly a third of home building material inputs come from China, according to the National Association of Home Builders, not to mention more finished products like bathtubs, sinks, appliances, and more.
This could delay home construction at a time when it has finally picked back up. Since the financial crisis, home building has struggled to keep pace with demand because of the cost of construction, lack of available land, and a construction labor shortage.
However, home builder confidence has skyrocketed in recent months, according to the NAHB. This signals that builders are more inclined to start construction on homes. To wit, new home sales—largely dependent on how many homes are built—have spiked dramatically in recent months, as have construction starts.
But if supply lines are disrupted, it could dampen the pace of home building and contribute to inventory shortages.
“Low interest rates help support demand, and consumer confidence readings in the coming months will be key, but the virus does heighten some of the longer-term challenges on the supply side in terms of housing supply,” says Robert Dietz, an economist with NAHB.
So how should I approach things heading into the spring homebuying season?
The conditions are set for the spring being an incredibly competitive housing market. Inventory is low, demand is high, and mortgage rates are low. If you already own a home, you might consider refinancing while rates are this low; other homeowners are already jumping at the chance.
However, it’s worth taking recent housing market history into consideration. Two years ago, similar conditions existed in the market and one realtor told Curbed that we were entering “the most competitive housing market in recorded history.”
That market didn’t materialize. Instead, home prices hit an affordability ceiling that kept many buyers out of the market. Eager sellers who listed their homes in hopes of taking advantage of the favorable conditions saw their homes linger on the market, leading to an inventory pile up not seen since the 2008 housing crash, particularly on the West Coast.
Home prices are still very high. If the same conditions existed and home prices were a little undervalued, it would likely create rapid home-price appreciation. But with prices already maxed out, it remains to be seen whether current market conditions cause prices to break even higher or hit a ceiling.
The wild card in the housing market is coronavirus. If its impact is prolonged and induces even a minor recession, it could put a damper on demand—which would actually be welcome for buyers in particularly competitive markets. Still, don’t expect home prices to drop. It would likely just slow down the pace at which they are rising.