Americans still see real estate as their best shot at wealth. It may be wishful thinking. Over the past few years, Americans have had a brutal lesson in the risks of real estate. House prices have crashed more than 35% in some parts of the country, millions of people are losing their homes to foreclosure, and banks are failing. The takeaway? Many Americans still see real estate as their best shot at wealth. In survey after survey, people expect prices to bounce back — in some cases, as soon as six months from now.
By James R. Hagerty, Dec 1, 2008, WSJ

The Journal Report

See the complete Your Money Matters report.Those hoping for a quick rebound are likely to be disappointed. Economists and other pros generally say home prices won’t bottom out before the second half of 2009, and some don’t see a bottom until 2011 or 2012. Even when they stop falling, prices may scrape along the bottom of the rut for years.

Down the Road

And longer term? Over the next 10 to 20 years, housing economists expect prices will rise again — but, on average, probably not nearly as much as they’ve averaged over the past decade. That isn’t to say that some places won’t experience booms (and busts). But, the experts say, you should generally expect house prices to rise just a bit more than inflation and roughly in line with household income.

Karl Case, an economics professor at Wellesley College whose name adorns the S&P Case-Shiller home-price indexes, has studied U.S. house prices going back to the 1890s. Over the long run, he says, home prices tend to increase on average at an inflation-adjusted rate of 2.5% to 3% a year, about the same as per capita income. He thinks that long-run pattern is likely to continue, despite the recent choppiness.

Other experts make similarly modest predictions. William Wheaton, a professor of economics and real estate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he expects house prices to increase at a rate roughly one percentage point higher than inflation over the long term. Celia Chen, director of housing economics at Moody’s, a research firm, expects house prices to increase an average of around 4% a year over the next couple of decades.

Some experts say it’s a bad idea to count on your home rising in value at all. People should think of their own homes mainly as places to live, not as investments, advises Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the Fisher Center for Real Estate at the University of California, Berkeley. Sure, home mortgages provide tax benefits, and most homes appreciate in value over the long run, he says, but there is always risk.

For all of those forecasts, many Americans are undaunted. Consider three surveys, all from October.

In a poll of 2,000 adults, real-estate-data provider found that 61% believed the value of their home would either remain level or rise over the next six months. Another survey of more than 1,000 homeowners, sponsored by real-estate-services firm Realogy Corp., found that 91% thought that owning a home was the best long-term investment they could make. And an online survey of 5,000 people commissioned by Citigroup found that just 32% believed it was a good time to invest in stocks — but 51% said it was a good time to buy a home.

Stephen Webster / Wonderful Machine

Real Time Economics

The S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index showed accelerating price declines in September. See a sortable chart of home prices, by metro area.

"I just believe in real estate," says Jason Schram, a lawyer in Chicago who has bought two rental properties this year at what he considers fire-sale prices. "I’ve seen over and over people I know build wealth through rental real estate, and that’s the path I intend taking, even though it’s a bit bumpy at the moment."

Location, Location

So, as homeowners and buyers look ahead, what factors will determine whether their homes are really likely to rise in value, rather than just in their dreams? What are some of the bullish signs — and some of the bearish ones?
In the long term, house prices are driven by fundamentals that are hard to predict: immigration, birth rates, the size and nature of households, and incomes. The trick is to figure out where job and income growth will be strongest and where immigrants and others will want to live.

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