How to Tell if Your Housing Market Has Hit Bottom

The Wall Street Journal

At first glance, you're not likely to see a lot of similarities between stately Cambridge, Mass., and sprawling Denton, Texas.

Amid the continuing gloom in the U.S. housing market, you can find small pockets of home-price stability -- communities that are actually recovering from the housing bust. WSJ's David Crook talks with Kelsey Hubbard about what those communities can teach today's home buyers and sellers.

Cambridge (population about 105,000) was already more than 200 years old when Denton (120,000) was founded in 1857. From the center of Cambridge, it's an easy stroll across the Charles River into Boston. Denton, in contrast, sits where Interstate Highway 35 divides—to the west, it's 41 miles to Fort Worth; to the east, 39 miles to Dallas.

But both are college towns. Cambridge is well known as the home of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Denton has North Texas State University and Texas Woman's University.

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They have something else in common, too. Both have pretty much recovered from the five-year-and-counting housing recession. And both provide invaluable clues for those looking to decipher whether their own markets have seen the worst of the crisis.

According to a statistical analysis performed for The Wall Street Journal by the online real-estate information and search firm Zillow, home values in a handful of communities are where they were just before the most frenzied days of the real-estate bubble. Focusing on communities with sufficient sales activity to produce statistically valid value estimates, Zillow spotted 25 places that are within single-digit percentage points of their home-value peaks. (Zillow found no communities where values have surpassed their high-water marks.) Not bad considering that home values in some major metropolitan areas are at half their bubble-era peaks.

As a result, spotting the factors that have helped those communities get by may allow all homeowners to better gauge what's going on where they live—and what the future may hold for their home's value.

Some words of caution.

First: Don't look at these as housing-market "winners," and don't go looking for new places where you can score a killing. That's the thinking that got much of the country in trouble in the first place. Housing isn't an investment like stocks or bonds and shouldn't be approached that way.

Second: Although many of the areas have certain traits in common, most are just nice places to live, places where anyone might want to work and raise a family. Each is special in its own right.

Finally, the biggest reason that most are surviving the downturn is because they never experienced the huge price runups that Florida, Nevada or California did in the first place.

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In Denton, Zillow estimates values are down 7.4% from their peak, while values are down about 8.6% in Cambridge. That's about where prices stood in 2004 in both towns. In contrast, the latest Case-Shiller Home Price Index indicates national prices are at 2002 levels.

So what should you look for if you are thinking of selling your home or buying a new one? What does a healthy real-estate market look like today?

Here are three big factors to look for. If your community shares any of these traits, you may already be on the rebound.

Employment

It's the oldest joke in real estate, but with a new punch line:

Q: What are the three most important things to consider when buying a house?

A: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.

Clearly, the No. 1 factor in determining whether a community has passed through the worst of the housing debacle is its current state of employment. There has always been a connection between the local jobs picture and the local real-estate market, but it's even greater today.

The official U.S. unemployment rate was still a very high 9.2% as the prime home-shopping season began in March. Denton County's unemployment rate was 7.4% in March—way up from before the financial crisis but lower than the rate for all of Texas and nearly two points below the national rate. Unemployment in Cambridge's Middlesex County is 2½ percentage points below the U.S. average.

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Indeed, many of the communities that turned up in the Zillow analysis have big recession-insulated employers like Cambridge's and Denton's universities.

Look at North Carolina, where three communities appear on the Zillow list. Although North Carolina's unemployment rate is higher than the national average, all three communities are lower than the state rate. Jacksonville, where values are just 0.1% below their peak, is the home of the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune and New River Air Station. Fayetteville has the Army's Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base. And Durham is one of the vertices of the Research Triangle conglomeration of universities, state and federal government offices, and government, nonprofit and corporate research facilities.

Rents

Local rents are very strong indicators of real-estate values. Home prices in most communities that have best weathered the downturn tend toward the low-rent end. That is, they have lower price-to-rent multiples, and house hunters will often find it cheaper to buy properties than to rent them.

Look at a typical "rent vs. buy" calculator available on many real-estate or personal-finance websites. Most calculators figure that if prices are more than 15 times annual rents, then a market favors renters; under 15 times, buyers.

Earlier this month, there was a $525-a-month rental two-bedroom, one bath house in Conway, Ark., near the state capital, Little Rock, where home values are down just 5.1% from their peak. But asking prices for comparable houses in the same neighborhood are in the high $60,000s—so, using the typical rent-vs.-buy formula, prices are about 11 times rent, a bargain.

That's the same price-to-rent multiple as in college town Champaign, Ill., where a three-bedroom, one-bath house was on the rental market for $850 a month. Albany, N.Y., another state capital, also falls within the affordability range. You can buy a four-bedroom, 1½-bath house for around $200,000, only about eight times the annual rent.

Caveat: Beware the outliers. Extremely low price-to-rent multiples can be warning flags for seriously depressed markets that are glutted with unsold properties. Trulia, another real-estate information site, regularly publishes a rent-to-buy analysis of large metropolitan areas, and the most "affordable" markets are a Where's Where of the real-estate bust: Las Vegas (prices 6 times rents), Phoenix (7), Miami (8). At the opposite end, Trulia's survey says the "least affordable" market is New York City (39), where home values are down just 9.1% from their peak.

Foreclosures

Healthier communities have fewer foreclosed properties pulling down values of other homes.

Just as jobs fuel the local housing engine, foreclosures put on the brakes. Even in good times, one foreclosed property in a neighborhood can bring down the values of every other house around it. And, in bad times, entire metropolitan areas can be swamped by abandoned, foreclosed houses.

In 2010, the worst year so far, about 2.23% of all the homes received a foreclosure filing, according to RealtyTrac, an Irvine, Calif., firm that monitors foreclosed properties. In Las Vegas, the poster child of the Sun Belt's real-estate bust, the foreclosure rate was 12%, more than 80% of homes are worth less than their mortgages and values are down more than 50% from their peak.

And what was the foreclosure rate in Utica, the buckle of upstate New York's merciless Snow Belt? Barely a flurry, just 0.04%. And home values are down just 4.2%, helped along by a growing population.

For home owners, the snow looks a lot more inviting than it used to.

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