Historically, homes have been a safer investment than equities. During 2008, the worst year of the housing crisis, the median U.S. home price declined 15 percent, compared with a more than 38 percent plunge in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
Americans stay in their homes for a median of eight years, according to the National Association of Realtors in Chicago. Someone who bought a home in 2002 and sold in 2010 saw a 4.8 percent increase in value, based on the annualized median price measured by the group. The average annual gain in the past 20 years was 4.2 percent.
Falling prices have made real estate the best buy in at least four decades. Housing affordability reached a record in December, according to National Association of Realtors data that go back to 1970. The group bases its gauge on property prices, mortgage rates and the median U.S. income.
The median U.S. home price tumbled 32 percent from a 2006 peak to a nine-year low in February, data from the Realtors show. The retreat surpassed the 27 percent drop seen in the first five years of the Great Depression, according to Stan Humphries, chief economist of Zillow Inc., a Seattle-based real estate information company.
“We expect that purchase activity will pick up slowly as the improvement in the job market eventually leads to greater willingness to buy,” the mortgage bankers group said.
Borrowing (Mortgage Loan Rates )costs are at historic lows. The average U.S. rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.69 percent last year, the lowest in annual data going back to 1972, according to mortgage financier Freddie Mac, based in McLean, Virginia. The rate in March was 4.84 percent, the company said.
By 2012’s fourth quarter, the average fixed rate may rise to 6 percent, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
“If you can jump through the hoops to get a mortgage, and there will be hoops, then this is an amazing time to purchase real estate,” said Robert Stein, a senior economist at First Trust Portfolios LP in Wheaton, Illinois, and the former head of the Treasury Department’s Office of Economic Policy. “There are going to be a lot of people kicking themselves a few years from now because they didn’t take advantage of the low prices and the low mortgage rates.”