USA TODAY - The housing recovery hit high gear in 2013 with bigger than expected price gains and solid home sales. This year isn't likely to be as exciting. Rising mortgage interest rates will price out some potential buyers. Instead of double-digit price gains, look for single-digit ones, economists say, while existing home sales remain at last year's level.
Sound boring? "You want boring in the housing market," says Svenja Gudell, Zillow director of economic research.
Here's what's ahead for:
• Home prices. They were the highlight of the 2013 housing market, up 12.5% in October year over year, CoreLogic says. Prices are now 20% off their 2006 peaks after falling more than 30%, shows the Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller index.
Economist John Burns looks for a 6% gain in 2014. Many others see smaller increases ahead. Zillow forecasts just a 3% rise.
Prices will likely rise more slowly as more homes come on the market, fewer investors bid for homes and higher ownership costs including interest rates and home prices take a bite out of housing affordability, housing experts say.
Still, U.S. housing remains 4% undervalued when compared with other economic fundamentals, such as consumer incomes and the cost to rent, says Jed Kolko, Trulia economist. At their 2006 peak, home prices were 39% overvalued based on the same metrics, Kolko says.
•Existing home sales. They've started to slow. In November, they were down year over year for the first time in 29 months, National Association of Realtor data show.
The dip was driven by higher interest rates and a tight supply of homes for sale. It doesn't mean the housing recovery has come off the rails, because home prices and housing starts continue to improve, says Capital Economics economist Paul Ashworth.
Existing home sales, which came in at a 4.9 million seasonally adjusted pace in November, are expected to be about 10% higher in 2013 than 2012 and stay about the same at 5.1 million in 2014, NAR forecasts. That's roughly back to 2007 levels but below the inflated levels preceding the housing crash.
New-home sales, which make up a smaller part of the market, have more room to grow. They hit an annual pace of 464,000 in November, up almost 17% from a year ago but still below the 700,000-a-year pace generally considered healthy.
The new year will be different for home buyers, though.
Look for fewer bidding wars and a less frantic market, says Glenn Kelman, CEO of brokerage Redfin. Its data show bidding wars recently falling to one of two offers handled by Redfin agents, down from three of four at the peak in March.
Homes are taking longer to sell, and more sellers are also reducing prices to win sales, Kelman says. At the same time, the supply of existing homes for sale edged up to 5.1 months from 4.9 months in October, NAR says. That's still below the six-month supply that Realtors generally consider to be a balanced market for buyers and sellers.
Supply should get closer to that level in 2014, Kelman says.
Donaee and Jeff Reeve hope he's right. The couple sold their Seattle-area home in just 10 days amid a hot June market. They've been renting as they search for a new home with a few acres. Meanwhile, prices have risen. The lack of suitable homes for sale is "discouraging," says Donaee Reeve, 36, a dental hygienist.
• Housing construction. This part of the housing recovery has been a laggard.
November's data showed an improvement, with housing starts topping 1 million on an annual basis, the Commerce Department says. That was up almost 30% from a year earlier, but it's still far below the norm. Starts averaged 1.5 million a year before the mid-2000s housing boom.
Construction won't return to normal this year, but it will strengthen enough to be the main driver of the housing recovery as home price gains shrink, says investment manager Goldman Sachs Asset Management.
It sees housing starts increasing 20% a year for the next several years as household formation picks up with the strengthening economy.
More home construction means more jobs for construction workers, plumbers, civil engineers and others in the building trades, as well as related industries such as furniture manufacturing, it says.
Construction alone will add 300,000 to 500,000 jobs a year to the nation's job base for the next three years, GSAM predicts. That's up from about 100,000 in 2013.
"The construction revival is primarily a matter of when, not if," says Tom Teles, GSAM head of securitized and government investments.
• Mortgage rates. Sarah and Andrew Katz know home prices are going up, and mortgage interest rates, too. But they're still convinced it's a good time to buy a first home. They've set their sights on spring.
"We're banking on interest rates staying under 5%, but they are what they are," says Sarah, 29, who works in public relations in Manhattan.
The couple better not wait too long, economists warn.
Average rates for a fixed 30-year mortgage will rise to 5.5% by the end of 2014, says Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. Rates have already risen about 1 percentage point in the past year as the economy has strengthened. They'll be pushed up further as the Federal Reserve winds down its $85 billion monthly bond-buying program.
Each percentage point increase in mortgage rates makes homes about 10% more expensive in terms of higher housing payments.
Another factor could weigh on borrowers. Starting in January, lenders must make home loans that meet new federal qualified mortgage standards or face greater liability from borrower lawsuits, should the loans go sour.
At least 5% of mortgages extended in 2013 wouldn't meet the new standard, Yun says. More than that will likely face additional scrutiny from lenders as they implement all parts of the new rule, says Brian Koss, executive vice president of lender Mortgage Network.
He says the higher rates and tighter rules will likely drive some home buyers out of the market or into lower-priced homes than they could have afforded last year.
"People have gotten spoiled," Koss says. Higher rates and home prices will test the strength of the housing recovery in 2014, he says.
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