Let's start by conceding that buying a house these days is a lot different than it used to be. Before the housing crash, you could be pretty confident that if you purchased property it would rather quickly appreciate in value.
It was looked at as an investment, a smart place to put your money. But a lot of people who purchased a home at the top of the market in 2007 owe a lot more on their mortgage than their homes are worth.
Today, people can still make money buying and selling real estate, but most home buyers have different motivations, even though a big one still has to do with money.
Owning vs. renting
In some markets the monthly cost of putting a roof over your head is significantly less owning rather than renting. Rents have skyrocketed over the last five years while mortgage rates remain near historic lows.
If you have been thinking about purchasing a home, the first half of 2015 might be a good time. One big reason is a new survey from Fannie Mae that shows consumer confidence in the housing market declined a bit in December.
But wait a minute, isn't that a reason to wait? Not really – that is, if you are sure that buying a home is the right decision for you. Because when you start shopping for a home, you want as little competition from other would-be buyers as possible.
A lack of confidence in the housing market suggests fewer consumers are ready to take the plunge. With fewer buyers there is less upward pressure on prices. That's not great for sellers but it is for buyers.
"Despite consistent and robust job growth in recent months, consumer attitudes toward housing remained cautious in the final month of 2014," said Doug Duncan, senior vice president and chief economist at Fannie Mae. "Our survey results show that consumer housing sentiment has, on average, been moving sideways amid some improvement in the general view of the economy.”
Duncan says it's no surprise that the housing sector continues to lag behind the rest of the economy. Committing to a 30-year mortgage, he says, seems a bigger deal than it once did.
“Many prospective homebuyers want to be certain that their personal finances can withstand potential downside risks to the economy," he said.
True, but you have to live somewhere. If you feel secure in your job and plan to remain in the area for several years, you can actually save thousands of dollars owning instead of renting.
Monthly cash flow
Glenn and Brenda, a couple in Richmond, Va., rent a 2-bedroom apartment for $1,250 a month and struggle to make ends meet each month. With a 5% down payment provided by their families, they are purchasing a completely renovated 1,000 square foot home for $130,000, with a total monthly payment of less than $800 a month.
One thing holding back home sales since the crash has been the difficulty of securing a mortgage. But now that the government has finalized new lending guidelines, it may be a little easier to finance a home. At least, that's a widely-held belief.
"One notable result in the December survey is that the share of consumers believing that it would be easy to get a mortgage exceeds those saying it would be more difficult to get a mortgage by the widest amount in the survey's history," said Duncan.
While Duncan says that's a welcome signal, he notes softness in consumer attitudes that drive housing demand will make for a subdued housing recovery.
For consumers who have thought it through and decided they want to buy a home, that could make for a very attractive environment.