If you want gloom-and-doom, keep your eyes glued on that fiscal cliff. If you want to feel on a stronger financial footing, watch the house for sale across the street or the new home that just sold.
This year, housing is expected to make the first positive contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product after six consecutive years of dragging down the U.S. economy. More gains from housing are expected in 2013, 2014 and 2015, economists say.
So if you’re underwater on your mortgage, well, maybe things aren’t as bad as they looked just a year ago. Want to refinance to tap into lower interest rates? Now could be your chance. Some families might even discover they can afford to move.
“We bought a bigger, better house with a great interest rate – and we sold our second home, making money,” said Marisol Jendrusik, 32.
Jendrusik and her husband, Joe Jendrusik, bought a 2,200-square-foot house in north Livonia, Mich., at the end of September.
“It looks like a mini-mansion,” she said proudly. “The backyard backs up to the park.”
The housing industry – a poster child of the Great Recession – is experiencing a budding recovery that’s being driven by 30-year mortgage rates in the 3.5 percent range, more reasonable home prices, less supply and more jobs.
“Home building has come back from a near-death experience,” said David Sowerby, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based portfolio manager for Loomis Sayles.
Want one gee-whiz quirky number? PulteGroup has seen its stock soar to the top of the Standard & Poor’s 500 list – gaining more than 150 percent for the year through Nov. 12. Granted, Pulte stock closed at $6.31 a share at year-end 2011.
For consumers, the somewhat happier trend for housing prices isn’t a one-size-fits-all story. How much better you feel now depends on when you bought that house and the risks you took during the downturn.
Some individual situations are a bit of a mixed bag, too.
The Jendrusiks, who have two sons ages 4 and 2, moved out of a 1,400-square-foot ranch house in Westland, Mich., that they bought in a foreclosure sale about three years ago. Joe Jendrusik was able to do the painting, remodel the basement and handle other fixing-up tasks. They sold that bargain-basement home at a profit, even after their costs, in October, within about two months after putting the house up for sale.
But the young couple still owns another 1,000-square-foot house in Westland, a house they bought in 2006 at the peak. They’re renting that house because they owe more on that mortgage than the house would sell for now. The unexpected job of being a landlord is a sign of the times for Marisol Jendrusik’s crowd.
“I have a group of six girlfriends, and five of them have rentals,” said Jendrusik, who works in human resources at GreenPath Debt Solutions in Farmington Hills.
Even so, the overall, ongoing gains in home prices could set the stage for a stronger U.S. economy next year, some economists say. Rising home values can plug the fiscal hole in many household budgets.
Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, estimates the positive shift in home sales and prices could add 0.4 percentage points to the nation’s gross domestic product this year – and about 0.7 percentage points in 2013. He is forecasting 2.2 percent real GDP growth in 2012 and 2.1 percent in 2013.
Housing often is a leading indicator of overall U.S. economic activity. Gary Thayer, chief macro strategist for Wells Fargo Advisors, said consumers could be more willing to spend if they feel better about their home’s situation. That’s “assuming that Congress does not allow the country to go off the fiscal cliff,” Thayer wrote in a report.
Richard Dugas Jr., chairman, president and CEO for the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based PulteGroup, said his home-building company is cautiously optimistic after two quarters of positive net income. The third quarter that ended Sept. 30 represented the highest quarterly earnings since the third quarter of 2006, and the company is on track for full-year profitability.
Pulte’s stock price zoomed to about $46 in July 2005 but had fallen 92 percent to $3.54 a share by October 2011.
Robert O’Shaughnessy, executive vice president and CFO for the PulteGroup, said the recovery is different geographically.
Much depends, he noted, on how much supply of housing remains in a given area. In some areas, large investors have bought up dozens of homes at a time for rental properties. But some markets haven’t cleared out.
“Chicago is probably the most difficult market we have in the country, and behind that, believe it or not, Atlanta,” Dugas said.
We’re still well below what many would consider normal. But Moody’s estimates that housing numbers look likely to gain traction through 2015. Prices after the recession are more attractive, too.
Most recently, Reetz said, Pulte has seen a trend of buyers who have sold their homes in a much shorter time period than expected.
“This is creating a demand for new homes,” he said.
Some homeowners had planned to stay only five years in a smaller starter home in older suburbs. But home values fell so dramatically that they ended up staying a few more years. Now, that values are edging upward, Reetz said, some families are starting to see a chance to break even and move out of a 900-square-foot home.
For Jim Jablonski, 50, and his wife, Kim Maloney, a well-timed home purchase during the downturn put the couple in a house in Brighton Township, Mich., that has grown more quickly in value than they expected.
“We bought this house at the absolute bottom,” said Jablonski, who works in the information technology business.
“We say, ‘Wow, we ended up in our dream house.’ ”
Jablonski and his wife paid $391,000 for the 4,100-square foot house in a short sale in April 2011. The couple decided to sell a smaller home in Royal Oak, Mich., that they had owned for about 15 years. Selling in the down market meant they broke even on the old house but got a deal on a new one.
Jablonski said he’s surprised at how much the value has gone up in about 18 months, estimating the home could be worth $490,000-$500,000 now.
“I think the nicer houses are in more demand now,” he said.
Lower interest rates don’t hurt, either.
With a 30-year fixed rate of 3.5 percent, a borrower would pay $1,347.13 a month on a $300,000 mortgage, according to Bankrate.com. Many economists expect that interest rates will remain low.
“We think housing will be one of the bright spots in the economy over the next couple of years,” said Christopher Ruth, chief market strategist for Comerica Asset Management Group.
Ruth said younger consumers may contribute to the recovery, too. The Great Recession dramatically cut into the rate that younger consumers moved out of their parents’ home and set up households.
But Census Bureau data show the nation added 1.15 million households, including rental apartments, in the 12 months that ended in September. That’s up from an average of 650,000 a year during the slump for the past four years.
The rate is lower than the 1.25 million households that sprung up each year during strong economic times. But experts say the latest figures indicate that major life events aren’t being delayed as often, and younger consumers are more willing to rent with roommates – and possibly be ready to buy a home down the line.
Much, of course, will depend on how well the jobs picture improves. Pulte’s Dugas noted the move-up buyer – the 35- to 45-year-old consumer buying the next bigger home – is the best category for Pulte sales now.
The entry-level buyer, served by the Pulte’s Centex brand, remains a concern, Dugas said.
The economy and lending standards would need to improve to help first-time buyers overcome the challenges of buying a home, he said.
Right now, Pulte executives and others see more reason to be optimistic about the strengthening housing market.
“There’s an awful lot of room to grow from here. But given where we’ve been, it sure feels good,” Dugas said.