Everything from home sales to house prices have been dropping or slowing. So it may come as a surprise that a measure of housing sentiment has improved.
That suggests the index, from mortgage liquidity provider Fannie Mae, may have some limitations in forecasting housing market trends – even as it provides insights into Americans’ personal situations and financial decisions.
Fannie’s Home Purchase Sentiment Index, released Friday, has 12 components that touch on everything from whether it’s a good time to buy or sell a property to whether or not respondents’ personal financial situations are going to get better or worse.
In November, most of the components were relatively static. Americans were a tiny bit less optimistic about the job situation – but not by much.
More people thought rents would go up, and the percentage that thought rents would go down was unchanged (just 4% of people foresaw that rosy scenario.) Yet when asked to estimate how much rents would go up, the average response, 4.4%, was a tick higher than the 4.3% recorded in October.
The biggest mover of all the categories was on the question of incomes. The share of people saying theirs are higher than a year ago increased by three percentage points, and those saying theirs are lower declined by two, meaning the net share jumped five percentage points to 24%.
Fannie has been asking that question since June 2010, and 24% is the highest on record, which makes sense, given that it’s been a long stretch of stagnant wage growth. The question is what it means for housing if people are starting to make enough money that they’re noticing a positive change in their paychecks.
In the short term, the answer is likely not much.
That’s because housing market realities remain hard, no matter the sentiment wafting through it. There’s still lean supply, and while that may be budging a bit after a few stagnant months of sales, it’s quite likely that most of what’s available is still going to be unaffordable to many American house-hunters.
To try to quantify that idea a bit: another component of the index tracks beliefs about the direction of mortgage rates. Slightly fewer people said they would go up, and a scant 4% thought they’d go down. Respondents’ estimates of home price increases also ticked down, to 2.5%. While it’s true, and probably well-publicized, that home price gains are cooling, they’re still running at roughly two times that.
It’s possible that Americans are earning more money, and thus feel like they have more buying power in the housing market. Still, anyone going out on the market with the assumption that over the coming months mortgage rates are going down or that home prices are only going to grow 2.5% is likely to be disappointed.
And it’s even more likely that other factors that aren’t represented in Fannie’s index are going to have an even bigger impact on buyer behavior and the market. Gyrations in the stock market are already spooking many wealthier investors, and with sharp declines in the S&P 500 SPX, -1.95% in recent months, anyone counting on selling stocks to pay for a down payment may be in trouble.