It’s been a wild ride for hopeful homebuyers over the last couple of years.
The frenetic pace of the pandemic-fueled housing market placed upward pressure on prices. Low inventory and a large buyer pool gave sellers the upper hand, creating competition that saw a lot of buyers shut of out deals. And rapid, successive mortgage rate hikes, along with rising inflation, caused a real-time affordability crunch as the market ground to a near-halt towards the end of 2022.
But spring is in the air, and buyers who were sidelined in the heyday of 2022 are taking notice. With the ability to press pause and formulate a new plan in a new market, the time is right for buyers to strike a deal that works in their favor.
The spring housing market is traditionally the busiest, with both more buyers jumping into the fray and more sellers bringing homes to market. A lot of houses show better in springtime, especially in terms of curb appeal. Spring purchases and spring/summer closings tend to work better for families moving, because of the timing of the school year.
Additionally, this year fundamentals in the housing market are shifting alongside the season, creating unique opportunities for buyers.
Mortgage rates appear to be stabilizing. Housing prices have softened, opening the door to a group of buyers who were shut out previously. Builders are becoming more aggressive with incentives to move inventory. While inflation is still stubbornly high, it is trending down. Economic uncertainty still hovers and the consensus is that, while a recession is still a distinct possibility, its impact may not be as profound as initially feared.
“It is our belief is that we do end up falling into a US economic recession sometime this year. And from our opinion, is it’s more of a run of the mill recession, meaning it isn’t as dramatic as the COVID recession and it’s not as prolonged as the great financial crisis,” says Ali Wolf, chief economist, Zonda.
Changes to the psychology of the market
The current market conditions favor buyers financially, but also offers an emotional reprieve. No doubt the frenetic pace of the housing market has taken a toll on weary house hunters, riding the highs and lows of the search and offer process, losing out in bidding wars.
A house purchase is so fraught with emotion because it satisfies a need for shelter and presents an opportunity to create wealth, but it also provides affirmation and a host of other psychological and physiological benefits. There is a lot on the line when purchasing a house that will become a “home”.
“A home is central to your sense of wellbeing in term of having my stake, my claim, my piece of rock, it connects you to so many other things,” says Mike Forsum, president and chief operating officer at Landsea Homes.
Cultivating that connection properly requires the ability to weigh out options, and when in competition with multiple buyers as was the case in recent months, pressing pause isn’t easily done. High pressure necessitates quick decisions, which can create a greater likelihood of buyer’s remorse.
One luxury that house hunters have today is time and space to arrive at a strategy and comfort level with their purchase plans.
“Today may be the best time to buy because it’s not a frenzy,” says Forsum. “We’re back to a point where you can be thoughtful about the floorplan you want, what block you are going to be on in the community, all things that I think are really important.”
House hunters today can take time to research what features, amenities and attributes in particular models and communities will contribute to lifestyle, as well as to affordability.
The tide is turning for buyers on the sidelines
When the market was hot, the buyers winning bidding wars had “pristine credit scores, large down payments, and were all around solid buyers,” says Wolf.
Meanwhile, buyers with decent credit scores (but not perfect), a lower down payment (5-10% instead of 20-30%) kept losing out in bidding wars.
What a difference a few months makes.
“What we’re seeing is kind of this next tier of buyers, people across all age groups, but very largely concentrated to the millennials, are now in this position that they’re willing and able to buy, usually with some kind of incentive or price cut, and now the markets not as competitive so they finally stand a chance to have their offer accepted,” says Wolf.
There are indications that buyers are motivated and seeing the possibilities in the spring market.
According to Fannie Mae’s Home Purchase Sentiment Index, homebuyers who feel that now is a good time to buy a house increased almost four points in December. This index demonstrates that buyers feel that both housing prices and mortgage rates will continue decrease in 2023.
There are signs that buyers are preparing to be active in the spring market. Although overall mortgage application rates are trending lower year-over-year, in the week ending January 13, 2023 mortgage applications substantially from the week prior, according to the latest release of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey. This upward trend occurred as the popular 30-year mortgage rate fell to its lowest rate since September.
“Mortgage applications jumped 28 percent last week, “said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s chief economist.
“The mortgage market is starting 2023 on a positive note, with declining mortgage rates and an increase in borrower demand, “says Fratantoni.
Notably, this is the biggest weekly jump in nearly three years, with the last increase of this proportion happening in March 2020, on the cusp of the pandemic.
Better value for buyers
The recent dip in mortgage rates may be just the impetus buyers need to raise their comfort level and get the wheels in motion on their house hunt.
With the myriad of buyer incentives on the table at the moment, along with the negotiating power that comes with a buyer’s market, the opportunity exists for buyers to create more value.
Buyers can compare and choose builders, based on incentives that align with their priorities for their home purchase, whether that is keeping their payments more affordable, reducing their purchase price and their overall debt load, or elevating their homes by leveraging upgrade allowances.
As affordability is top of mind with many buyers today, financial incentives, like mortgage buydowns and paying closing costs are smart incentives that can be helpful. Ideally, having the builder reduce the purchase price can aid with affordability, but there are additional considerations in getting more mileage from homebuying dollars.
Will housing prices continue to decline?
Wolf says, “While home prices have been on the decline, that trend isn’t necessarily going to continue in that direction. That said, “Our belief still for this year is that prices for all of 2023 are below prices for 2022.”
In the new construction market, price reductions have largely been part of a broader strategy to move existing inventory in a sluggish cycle. It’s not expected that these more aggressive price reductions would continue, mostly because of the demand/supply dynamic, with supply still in a deficit in many areas in the country and across price points as well.
“In the new construction housing market, there may be instances of price cuts or incentives just to promote inventory but in terms of the broad market, overall home values particularly on a national scale, we don’t expect to see any sustained or substantive home price decline,” says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst, Bankrate.
Priority for builders at the moment is moving the glut of Quick Move In (QMI) and inventory homes, available for purchase (up 173.5% year-over-year according to the latest figures). This represents an opportunity for deal-minded buyers who can be swift and flexible with their closing.
But beyond this existing inventory, a general shortage in housing supply and strong demand suggests that the buyer’s market may be short-lived. Given that the factors that had subdued the market towards the end of 2023 are waning, there are strong indicators that the window for opportunity for deal-minded house hunters is now.
Inflation and housing costs
Some prospective homebuyers may be concerned about inflation and affordability and how these may impact their house hunt. Inflation, although still well beyond the target of 2%, is trending downwards. Recent mortgage rates are starting a modest crawl back as well.
Typically, when inflation falls, mortgage rates fall as well, which is important to note, because the impact that inflation has on housing hinges on mortgage rates.
Furthermore, real estate is commonly seen as a strategic hedge against inflation. A mortgage payment is a static, consistent thing against a backdrop of variables.
“Housing is perceived to be a good inflation hedge because you’re able to lock in the largest part of your monthly budget at a time that other costs in the economy continue to go up,” says Wolf.
Property investors are aware of that opportunity, so homebuyers should watch and learn.
“Real estate, has often been seen as a hedge against inflation. So, a lot of investors certainly hold on to, and may add to their rental portfolio due to the inflationary backdrop,” says McBride.
On timing the market
In a market that has experienced volatility, and with the possibility of some economic headwinds blowing in the short term at least, does it make sense to take a wait-and-see approach to see if even better deals are on the horizon?
The short answer is that the market shouldn’t dictate the right time to buy a home. Individual financial circumstances, including credit score, cash flow and down payment, whether or not you need somewhere to live urgently and homeownership goals define when the timing is right.
There are pros and cons to entering the market at various points throughout the real estate cycle. What buyers need to do is look at their personal criteria and see if the market conditions currently synchronize with their wish list and risk tolerance.
Having said that, what is undeniably appealing to buyers at the moment is the control that they have recently acquired at the bargaining table, after many months of competition and compromise.
The window for this opportunity may not be permanent, as the market will continue to respond to policy and economic conditions as the year progresses.
It can be helpful to look at the market retrospectively for context.
“This is a much better time to buy than was the case 12 months ago. It’s better to buy when prices are falling than when they’re constantly rising because of bidding wars,” says McBride. “Buyers have a lot more control of the process now.”
Timing the market can backfire as well, as there are a number of variables beyond a buyer’s control. The product at hand, the relative deal available and how it suits a buyer’s needs are most important.
Wolf says, “If you see a house that you like and it has a good price and some kind of incentive, I wouldn’t wait because you may not know exactly how to time the market.”
Advice for mitigating risk
For buyers who are interested in getting back into house hunting, but still have reservations about making a purchase in a climate where economic uncertainty persists- like a looming recession, there are ways to mitigate financial risks.
While the real estate market naturally ebbs and flows, generally a favorable ROI will be realized as long as you employ a buy-and-hold mentality. Market fluctuations aside, it takes several years (the common opinion is between 5-7 years) in a home in order to start living profitably, when you take into account carrying costs, maintenance and mortgage rates.
Try to commit to a longer ownership timeline to ride out the peaks and valleys of the market.
Keep the gap wide between what you own and what you owe. Set a budget that provides a reasonable cushion, should job loss or income interruption occur. Many people forget that real estate, if the home is mortgaged, is a leveraged investment, which means that ROI is sensitive to fluctuations in interest rates. The lower the debt against the investment, the lower the risk.
Don’t bank on potentially refinancing if rates drop in order to make your purchase more affordable.
McBride says, “I wouldn’t stretch beyond a monthly payment you’re comfortable with under the assumption that you’ll be able to refinance at lower rates later, because it may not work out that way. So whatever price you’re paying, and whatever payment you’re signing up for on the financing, you’ve got to be willing to live with it.”
Do research into communities of interest ahead of time, to gauge the temperature of the market. Not only will this ensure getting the best value, data-driven research and well-contemplated strategy are the best ways to avoid buyer remorse.
Wolf says, “The more communities you go to, the more you’ll understand how many homes are available, what kind of incentives are out there, and you can get a sense of what the other demand is like as well,” which can help buyers determine if they are securing a good deal or not.
Don’t be shy to negotiate with builders. The market is tipping in favor of buyers, which means that terms a buyer wants should be on the table. Demands may or may not be executed, but this is the climate to take control of the purchase.
To address affordability concerns, take advantage of builder incentives like a mortgage buydown or help with closing costs to ease cash flow and/or help with monthly payments.
One barometer that could indicate the time is right to buy is to keep an eye on property investors in local markets. Not only have investors been tracking opportunities, they will also be joining homebuyers seeking shelter in the buyer pool, once that moment arrives. The key is still entering the pool while it is still relatively uncrowded to still maintain the advantage in negotiations.
“I would just track other demand…when you see investors start to return to the market that could mean that some of the deals start to evaporate,” says Wolf.