Home Prices Plunge

Real Estate Agent with Keller Williams Success Realty

NEW YORK ( -- Home prices fell 12.4% during the fourth quarter of 2008, the largest year-over-year decline since the National Association of Realtors began keeping comprehensive records in 1979.

The median price for a U.S. home sold during the fourth quarter of 2008 fell to $180,100, down from $205,700 during the last quarter of 2007.

Prices fell by a record 9.5% in 2008, to $197,100, compared to $217,900 in 2007. In comparison, median home prices dipped a mere 1.6% between 2006 and 2007.

Distressed properties, the foreclosures and short sales that have flooded the market, accounted for 45% of all deals. That has driven sales volume up in Nevada, California and other states hit hard by foreclosures, but these heavily discounted homes have also pushed median prices down.

"People are responding to discounted prices and are slowly absorbing the excess inventory," said NAR President Charles McMillan. "Buyers clearly see value in today's pricing."

Pain is widespread

The vast majority of metropolitan areas, 134 out of 153, recorded price declines compared with the last quarter of 2007.

"Home markets are weak just about everywhere," said Pat Newport, an analyst with HIS Global Insight, "but in a few states, distressed sales are driving transactions."

In Cape Coral-Ft. Myers, Fla., which has the third-highest rate of foreclosure filings in the nation, prices fell a devastating 50.8% for the year, to $110,900 from $225,300. That was the most precipitous plunge for any metro area.

In Saginaw, Mich., prices fell 41.4%. In Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., prices dropped 40.8% and in San Jose, Calif., prices declined 37.7%.

The Beaumont-Port Arthur area of Texas bucked the national trend. Its median home price jumped 16.7% to $132,600 - the highest increase in the nation. Other winners included Bloomington, Ill., up 9.6%; Dover, Del., up 6.5%; and Bismarck, M.D., up 6%.

The high number of distressed sales pushed prices down for several reasons, according to Lawrence Yun, chief economist for NAR. For one thing, many sales were in low- and moderate-income housing developments where buyers during the boom years financed their purchases using subprime mortgages. In higher-end areas, fewer exotic mortgages were used.

"Take Orange County, Calif.," said Yun. "It's the lower priced areas there where homes are selling. The high priced areas along the coast are not." As a result, the median home sales price for the area skews lower.

And the high number of foreclosures means banks are willing to slash prices deeply to move inventory. Many of the properties they've obtained through repossessions now sit vacant, soaking up lender money for maintenance, heating, property taxes and insurance. The banks willingly take lower prices to end those cash outlays, which brings down prices even for normal sellers.

Then there's also what Yun calls a "frozen" jumbo-mortgage lending market, which has also slowed sales of higher-priced homes and reduced median prices.

The good news is that bargain prices are bringing many new buyers into the market. "Many are first-time homebuyers who were priced out of the market during the boom," Yun said.

Stimulus help

NAR is hoping a piece of the stimulus bill before Congress will build on that momentum and provide an extra incentive for buyers.

"Assuming housing provisions in the economic stimulus package are quickly enacted and provide enough encouragement for homebuyers, we could see a quick lift in home sales for the critical spring home-buying season," said Yun.

On Thursday, it appeared that the final iteration of the homebuyer's tax credit, which had very different provisions in the House and Senate versions of the stimulus package, was shaping up to be closer to the House bill, according to Yun.

That means a credit of $7,500, perhaps $8,000, or 10% of home price for first-time homebuyers. This windfall will not have to be repaid by homebuyers and can be taken off 2008 taxes. NAR estimates that could draw in an additional half-million buyers this year.

"It could help reduce the high inventory of homes for sale," said Yun, "and get housing markets moving again. It's hard to get the economy back to growth until that happened."