The 4 Things Currently Ailing the Housing Market

by Peter Thomas Ricci

Housing has gotten off to a slow start in 2014, and as we approach the year’s halfway point, a diagnosis is in order.

If the last couple of weeks have made anything clear, it’s that the housing market has stumbled out of the gate in 2014. Not only were purchase applications down 21 percent from last year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s latest survey, but Morgan Stanley downgraded its estimate of total home sales by one million units.

We touch on housing’s ailments quite often in our news coverage, but in light of the most recent developments, we thought it pertinent to highlight some of the main things that continue to haunt housing’s recovery:

1. Weak Household Formation – Inventory is mentioned often in housing circles (and for good reason – we’ll address it momentarily), but household formation is the more important stat, because it tracks how many people are charting their own course and taking on their own residences, either in renting or owning.

Formations, though, have been extremely weak in recent months – the homeownership rate, in fact, is now at 64.8 percent, its lowest level in 19 years – and according to Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist, given the nature of the economy and the housing market,  formations are more important now than ever.

“Household formation is critical for the housing recovery,” he said. “With so many young people living with their parents or roommates during the recession, the housing recovery now depends on how quickly young adults re-enter the housing market.”

2. Crappy Millennial Job Market – As Kolko’s comments allude to, Millennials are a very important piece of the housing recovery, but until the job market recovers for that generation, housing will continue to stumble…and unfortunately, last week’s employment numbers were not very encouraging on that front.

In April, employment in the 25-34 year old bracket stood at 75.5 percent, far below the pre-bubble level of 78 to 80 percent. To give you an idea of how important that stat is, here’s some perspective – 12 percent of employed 25-34 year olds live their their parents, as opposed to 20 percent of 25-34 year olds without jobs. Eight percent of the nation’s largest generation means quite a few people, and quite a few formed households.

3. Inventory Voodoo – Wouldn’t it be nice if the nation’s lagging inventory was simply the result of persnickety home sellers? Sadly, as we recently explored, there are a myriad number of reasons that inventory remains low, among them  locked-in mortgage rates, low equity and short spans of time between purchases/refinancings. Between those three factors alone, as many as 40 percent of sellers nationwide are unable to list their homes!

4. Other Assorted Factors – Of course, there are other assorted factors that continue to impact housing, including: tough lending standards, which have barely budged in the last year; student debt, which remains elevated and continues to push debt-laden graduates to the margins; and a seriously strong rental market, which means more money is going towards monthly rents – and less towards saving for a downpayment.

In short, we’re in the midst of a wildly complicated housing market, and it may take some time for us to work through all the knots and kinks in the system.

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