Forecast for the Year to Come: Can 2018 Do It Again?

by Steve CookMarch 1, 2018

With top economists like Freddie Mac’s Leonard Kiefer calling 2017 “the best housing market in a decade,” how can 2018 compete?

While 2017 exceeded expectations in the two most important categories, sales and prices, it has its weaknesses. Now that the results are in, here’s a quick review of 2017’s accomplishments and disappointments.

2017: Great for sellers, not so great for buyers

Home sales increased by 1.1 percent in 2017 to a 5.51 million sales pace and surpassed 2016 (5.45 million) as the highest since 2006 (6.48 million). NAR’s chief economist Lawrence Yun noted that market conditions were far from perfect and sales would have been even better if more affordable properties had been available.

Prices in December increased 5.8 percent, rising for the 70th straight month−good news for owners but bad news for buyers as fast-rising prices and disappearing supplies pushed affordability to crisis levels in hotter markets. Inventories of homes for sale was 10.3 percent lower than a year ago, and unsold inventory ended the year at the lowest level since NAR began tracking it in 1999.

At 63.9 percent, the nation’s homeownership rate remained statistically unchanged during the year, only seven basis points above its all-time low in the second quarter, 2016. The year was not so good for young buyers. Millennials’ homeownership rate ended the year slightly higher than its all-time low and despite the size of the millennial generation and the improving economy, first-time buyers’ market share of purchases was lower than normal.
housing market

2018: Crystal ball gazing

Forecasting the real estate economy is a bit like forecasting the weather; like the weather, real estate is highly local. Conditions in one market may differ from others based on geography, local economies, and a dozen other factors. Many real estate trends are created by national conditions such as mortgage interest rates, income and employment trends and changing demographics.

This year, forecasting is even more difficult than normal because many markets continue to experience fundamental issues. Will incomes finally meet expectations? Will interest rates rise enough to discourage demand? Will the tax cut help or hurt homeowners? Most of all, will supply of homes for sale improve? The inventory drought is driving up prices and curtailing sales in many markets. Many factors are causing the drought, from problems affecting the production of new homes to the desire of more and more retirees to remain in their family homes. The sudden decline in listings that began three years ago caught the experts by surprise, and many don’t see a solution in sight next year.

With those caveats in mind, here’s a summary of how top economists view 2018:

Home prices: Over the past three years, the national median home price has risen about 11 percent, and most of that growth came last year as shortages of homes for sale inflated home values, especially in hotter markets on the East and West Coasts, and Texas. Look for prices to continue to rise but at a slightly slower pace than 2017. After rising about 6 percent in 2017, most forecasts are calling for prices to increase 5 to 6 percent in 2018…but that could change if supplies remain critically low.

Home sales: Sales ended up having a pretty good year last year, but not as good as many predicted. In the second half of the year, affordability issues hurt demand on the coast and among first-time buyers, who found themselves priced out of the market. As a result, 2017 sales were far below forecasts. Most economists don’t expect new home sales to improve enough next year to restore momentum to sales, so forecasts are calling for total home sales to increase only 2 to 4 percent next year.
Sold House
New homes: After a disappointing 2017, new home starts are forecasted to rise 8 to 10 percent next year.

Interest rates: New leadership at the Federal Reserve is not expected to change the current polity of gradual increases to the federal funds, a rate as long as the economy is strong. Rates in January were about 4.15 percent on 30-year fixed rate mortgage, up from 4.09 percent a year ago and 3.09 percent two years ago. Most forecasters are expecting rates to end 2018 around 4.5 percent.

First-time buyers: With no relief in sight to the debt and affordability issues plaguing first-timers, their share of sales is not expected to improve much over the current 32 percent, nor is the waning incentive provided by the mortgage interest deduction going to generate a turnaround in millennials’ low homeownership rate.

Homeowners’ equity: Homeowner equity reached a new all-time high in 2017, but average annual gains for individual homes varied widely, from $12,000 to $40,000, based on location. Since equity is primarily a function of price trends, look for equity to continue increase in 2018, though not quite as quickly.

Single-family rentals: Despite rising acquisition costs, investing in single-family rentals becomes more popular each year. Investors’ share of home purchases rose to 16 percent of sales in December, a 14 percent increase over 2017. Tight inventories of homes for sale are expected to keep purchase prices high for young buyers, keeping single-family rental occupancy rates healthy. Rising rents coupled with rising appreciation should offset higher acquisition costs over time.

As the new year begins, most economists see no dramatic changes on the horizon. Should that prove to be the case, 2018 could be a year when the real estate recovery catches its breath. A new sense of normalcy can make it easier for sellers, buyers, and owners to adjust to the fundamental changes in housing markets over the past three years.

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About The Author
Steve Cook
Steve Cook is editor and co-publisher of Real Estate Economy Watch. He is a member of the board of the National Association of Real Estate Editors and writes for several leading Web sites, including Inman News. From 1999 to 2007 he was vice president for public affairs at the National Association of Realtors.