Consumer Confidence Fueling Regional Home Price Increases

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Public optimism that a sustainable economic recovery is underway has driven up home prices in many regional markets, according to Fiserv, Inc.

The Wisconsin-based financial services firm released its analysis of home price trends Monday, covering 384 U.S. metro areas and based on the closely-watched Fiserv Case-Shiller Indexes.

The company’s analysts found that in the fourth quarter of 2009, U.S. home prices were trending up in 40 percent of the metros studied, including markets in California, Ohio, Michigan, and Washington, D.C.

“More and more, consumers have confidence that buying a home doesn’t mean catching a falling knife,” said David Stiff, chief economist at Fiserv. “Very large price declines have also made housing much more affordable, drawing in both first-time homebuyers and investors.”

Despite the modest bounce-back from recent lows in a large number of regional markets, the U.S. housing market continued its price correction over the past year, with single-family home prices across the U.S. falling an average of 2.5 percent over the 12-month period ending December 31, 2009.

Fiserv says the drop in the national figure can be attributed to high levels of unemployment and the large number of distressed properties that remain in markets such as Florida, Arizona, and Nevada.

According to Fiserv’s assessment, at the end of 2009, the median U.S. home price was $170,300. The median monthly mortgage payment fell slightly to 14 percent of median family income, a decrease of 1 percent compared to the third quarter of last year.

California markets collapsed about one year before much of the rest of the country, and Fiserv says relative to bubble-era prices, here is where it has seen the greatest improvement in housing affordability.

As of the end of 2009, year-over-year prices were up in eight of 28 California metro areas. The strongest rebounds were in coastal markets, including the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego, where there are decreasing levels of foreclosed homes. Markets in the interior have also experienced a price bounce, mainly due to strong investor demand, Fiserv said.

In Washington, D.C., home prices were up 5.2 percent year-over-year. Since the market bottom in early 2009, prices in this metro area have risen more than 9 percent, according to Fiserv’s analysis.

Fiserv says even Ohio and Michigan, two states hit hard by the recession and loss of manufacturing jobs, are seeing signs of stabilization, thanks to highly affordable housing conditions.

The company says other markets where investor purchases of foreclosed homes have dominated housing sales are also coming back into balance. These include metro areas such as Minneapolis, Detroit, and Memphis, Tennessee, where Fiserv says recent sales have included more non-distressed homes.

But even with clear signs of improvement in some touch-and-go markets, Stiff warns that renewed downward pressure on home prices is likely to show itself.

“The first-time homebuyer tax credit has expired, the Federal Reserve has stopped buying residential mortgage backed securities (MBS), and the projected number of foreclosures remains extremely high. As a result, markets with recent price increases may see small price declines before prices finally stabilize at the end of this year or early 2011.”

Fiserv forecasts that average single-family home prices will fall another 3.1 percent over the next 12 months.

Even steeper declines are expected in markets that have been hurt most by the housing crisis. From the fourth quarter of 2009 through the fourth quarter of 2010, Fiserv projects average home prices in Nevada, Arizona, and Florida are projected to drop 9.2 percent, 9.5 percent, and 7.7 percent, respectively.

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