NAR: Survey shows persistent housing anxieties despite confidence on economy

A strong share of respondents in the National Association of Realtors' latest HOME survey had a favorable outlook on the American economy and their personal financial outlook. However, the organization found that conditions in the housing market were making respondents less optimistic about purchasing a home.

The Housing Opportunities and Market Experience survey found that a majority of respondents—60 percent—considered the economy to be improving in the first quarter of 2018. This was down from 60 percent in the first quarter of 2017, but up from 52 percent in the fourth quarter of that year.

Respondents were most likely to have a favorable view of the economy if they lived in a rural area (72 percent), had a household income above $100,000 per year (69 percent), or owned a home (66 percent). Fifty-two percent of respondents with a household income under $50,000 thought the economy was not improving, along with 48 percent of people who lived with someone but did not own their home, 44 percent of those ages 34 and under, and 44 percent of respondents in the Northeast.

NAR's Personal Financial Outlook Index stood at 63.8 for all respondents, up from 57.1 in the previous year and 59.4 in the previous quarter. The scale ranges from zero to 100, with zero indicating that all respondents expect their financial situation to worsen in the next six months, 50 indicating that all respondents expect it to be the same, and 100 indicating that all respondents expect it to improve.

"The jump in optimism to start the year can be attributed to the robust job creation in most of the country, as well as the larger paychecks households are enjoying because of faster wage growth and the recent tax cuts," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors. "These three positives should further ignite buyer demand. However, several metro areas with the healthiest labor markets also have the most severe supply and affordability pressures. This troublesome reality is what's dampening moods and keeping many would-be buyers at bay."

Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they thought it was a good time to buy a residence, down from 72 percent in the previous quarter and 70 percent in the previous year to reach its lowest point in two years. Respondents were most likely to consider it a good time to buy if they were 55 or older, living in a rural area, or a homeowner; renters and those ages 34 and younger were most likely to consider it a bad time to buy a home.

"The critical shortage in listings in most markets continues to spark a hike in home prices that is not easy for many buyers—especially first-time buyers—to overcome," said Yun. "Adding more fuel to the affordability fire is the fact that mortgage rates have shot up to a four-year high in just a few months. Many house hunters are telling Realtors that they are dispirited by the stiff competition for the short number of listings they can afford."

Sixty-three percent of respondents said home prices in their community had gone up in the past 12 months, while 31 percent said they had stayed the same and 6 percent said they had decreased. Fifty-three percent said they expected prices to climb in the next 12 months, while 42 percent believed they will hold steady and 6 percent expect them to decrease.

A larger share of respondents said they thought it would be hard for them to qualify for a mortgage, with 64 percent believing it would be at least somewhat difficult. This share was up from 60 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017 and 56 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018. Thirty-four percent thought it would not be very difficult or not difficult at all, down from 41 percent in the previous quarter and 44 percent in the previous year.

Among respondents who did not own a home, 45 percent said they would likely have trouble qualifying for a mortgage because of an uncertain income. Thirty-four percent said their credit score was too low, and 26 percent said they had too much debt.

Non-owners were also asked if any factors were preventing them from saving up for a down payment on a home. Nearly half—47 percent—said they had limited income, while 30 percent cited student loan debts and 28 percent said their rent increased. Just 14 percent said no issues are preventing them from saving.

Respondents continued to be more optimistic about home selling conditions, with 74 percent considering it a good time to list a home. This share was up from 71 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017 and 69 percent in the first quarter of 2017.

People were most likely to believe selling conditions were favorable if they had higher incomes, with 80 percent of those earning $50,000 to $100,000 and 82 percent of those earning more than $100,000 considering it a good time to sell. Eighty percent of respondents ages 55 to 64 and 77 percent of those in the West also thought it was a good time to sell.

"There's no question that a majority of homeowners have amassed considerable equity gains since the downturn," said Yun. "Home prices have grown a cumulative 48 percent since 2011 and are up 5.9 percent through the first two months of the year. Supply conditions would improve measurably, and ultimately lead to more sales, if a growing number of homeowners finally decide that this spring is the time to list their home for sale."

The HOME survey includes an additional random question each quarter, and respondents in the most recent poll were asked what they would do if they had an unexpected $5,000 windfall. Thirty-seven percent said they would put the money into savings or invest it, while 28 percent would use it to pay off bills. Eleven percent said they would use it to fund a home project that had been postponed, and 6 percent said they would put it toward a down payment on a home purchase.

The survey for the first quarter of 2018 polled 2,072 households via telephone interviews.

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