Home price growth has reached its slowest pace since 2015, suggesting the U.S. housing market is starting to cool down.
National home prices rose 4.3% in January, down from 4.6% in the previous month, according to S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller. In the 20-city composite, which measure changes in residential house prices in 20 large metropolitan regions in the United States, the year-over-year gain came in at 3.6%, down from 4.1% in December.
House prices are continuing to cool as cities where prices surged in 2017-2018 now face much smaller increases. Some of the hottest housing markets, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, are now leading the slowdown as prices are flattening.
The incentive to sell goes down when homeowners worry they will not get their investments back, or not make as much profit as they hoped for, which is creating a buyer’s market.
For many home buyers, mortgage rates are as important as prices. Mortgage rates climbed from 3.95% in January 2018 to a peak of 4.95% in November 2018. Since then, rates have dropped to 4.28% as of mid-March. It remains to be seen if recent low mortgage rates and smaller price gains can sustain improved home sales.
“Lower mortgage rates and better affordability are making the market favorable for first-time homebuyers,” said Ryan Sweet, director of real-time economics at Moody’s Analytics. “Slower house price growth is good for them.”
Bonnie Dilber, a 36-year-old Texan who works as head of talent for Charter Substitute Teacher Network, bought her first home in Austin in January 2016, putting together a down payment by combining savings, a mortgage and a loan from her retirement fund. As home prices in her neighborhood has increased since she bought her house, she has thought of selling. Still, she is hesitant.
“If I sell my house, I could make a good amount of money on it, but then other homes in my neighborhood have also become more expensive,” Dilber said. “Ultimately, I feel like this is the place I want to be, so I feel pretty stable. But I sometimes worry that the economy is going to take a downturn and that I’ll be stuck if I wanted to move if prices drop or if the interest rates become high.”
Although there has been some frost in parts of the housing market and price gains have slowed, economists say it is stable. The market has weakened over the last year, but now that mortgage rates are dropping it will likely regain some footing.
“During the second half of 2018 we had a lot of turbulence in financial markets, so it is not surprising then that home price gains have slowed down,” said Stan Shipley, managing director and economist at Evercore ISI. “We still see good gains and even though home prices will not get as strong as three or four years ago, they are still faster than other price gains in the economy.”
Even though home price gains have slowed for the 10th consecutive month, economists say they do not expect them to slow further.
“Affordability is on the upside as mortgages have slowed and there is a better home demand,” Shipley said. “The housing market is tight so we think price gains will stay in a 3 to 4% range, as low mortgage rates are going to make housing affordability even more robust.”
The real caveat, Shipley said, is what happens if the economy slips into recession. If it does, home sales will go down and home prices will start tumbling, too. However, economists do not see a recession coming anytime soon.
Rising home prices can boost consumer spending as well, since homeowners who see their properties increase in value may feel wealthier and spend more.
“I have a good salary,” Dilber said. “And now that I have been living in the house for a couple of years and paid off some of my loans and mortgage, my expenses have gone down compared to when I was renting. I am not a big spender, but I have a lot more money to put in my savings and to pay off student loans.”