If you’re a potential homebuyer eyeing interest rates and real estate listings, you might be scratching your head. Mortgage rates are historically low, which means the cost of borrowing is cheap. However, home prices are up in all areas of the country, according to the most recent data from the National Association of Realtors.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to the question of whether to buy or not to buy. For one, real estate is local. So, although home values continue to rise in every region, there are unique differences among states, cities and even neighborhoods. But there are some indicators homebuyers can plug into their own personal situation that can help them get a better handle on how well current market conditions line up with their goals.
Mortgage Rates Could Start Rising With a Coronavirus Vaccine
A big wake-up call for mortgage borrowers came Monday when Pfizer announced preliminary results indicating its Covid-19 vaccine candidate is highly effective, causing markets to surge. Following the announcement, 10-year Treasury yields and mortgage rates both shot up.
If the U.S. government approves the Pfizer vaccine, mortgage rates likely will start to rise, experts predict. This would exacerbate an already expensive housing market.
“If the vaccine is approved, I would expect Treasury bond yields to move above 1% by 2021,” says John Lonski, markets economist at Moody’s Analytics. Ten-year yields are currently below 0.90%. “A vaccine will lead to an upturn in economic activity and business activity. Even if the Fed keeps the federal funds target in the current range, yields will rise, which means mortgage rates will, too.”
Lower rates means more buying power; however, the large gains in home values have canceled out monthly savings. In fact, comparing starter home prices in the fourth quarter of 2019 with current starter home prices and their respective mortgage rates, today’s buyers will pay slightly more in monthly payments but could save tens of thousands of dollars in total interest paid.
Home Prices Are Rising
Median single-family home prices climbed in all 181 metropolitan statistical areas tracked by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), according to its latest report. The double-digit year-over-year gains were most prominent in the West (13.7%), followed by the Northeast (13.3%), the South (11.4%), and the Midwest (11.1%).
Median home prices on existing single-family homes shot up to $313,500, 12% higher from this time last year. This means that home prices are growing four times as fast as median family income.
“Favorable mortgage rates will continue to bring fresh buyers to the market,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at NAR. “However, the affordability situation will not improve even with low interest rates because housing prices are increasing much too fast.”
A colossal 65% of the areas measured (117 areas out of 181) saw double-digit price growth year-over-year.
Although there’s strong growth in both urban and suburban areas, the data shows that less densely populated places are still performing better than packed cities in terms of homes sales and values. But some economists warn that with a vaccine on the horizon, the economy will snap back quickly thanks to a strong foundation going into the pandemic and could leave some homeowners with buyer’s remorse.
“People are frightened. They’re running out of cities and going to suburbs. This fear-driven demand for housing is dangerous,” says Lonski, the Moody’s economist. “What happens to housing when Covid-19 is behind us? A lot of people will discover that they paid a little too much for homes. Unless you absolutely have to move, you should take a cautious approach to buying a home right now.”
Look to New Construction to Help Slow Home Price Gains
Housing affordability has been an issue for a few years now as residential construction has lagged behind demand, creating an enormous imbalance in the market. At the beginning of 2020, construction was picking up but Covid pushed a pause button on activity.
The good news is that new residential construction is beginning to ramp up again. In September, housing starts were up by 11% year-over-year. According to the recent Dodge Data & Analytics 2021 Construction Outlook, U.S. construction starts are projected to increase by 4% next year, to $771 billion.
“Construction has recaptured some of the momentum it lost at the beginning of the year, so that will be good for inventory,” says Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com.
Hale says that inventory is really the only thing that can hit the brakes on rapid price growth, discounting other possibilities like baby boomers downsizing and expanding the pool of inventory as a meaningful solution.
“As far as boomers moving and downsizing, we haven’t seen a lot of that,” Hale says. “We expect the biggest help on the inventory side to come from new construction. It’s not going to be completely easy—there will still be affordability challenges. We don’t expect prices to decline; instead price growth will just slow and get in line with wages.”
What Homebuyers Should Consider Before Buying
The five-year rule is the first thing you should consider before buying, which is a general calculation that shows when you’ll break even from closing costs.If you plan on moving within five to seven years, you’ll likely lose money on the sale—unless home prices jump up dramatically, which is not something buyers should count on.
For homebuyers who plan on staying in the home long-term, there’s more time to build equity and make up for those hefty closing costs, which can equal about 2% to 5% of the purchase price.
“Don’t get carried away by the madness of crowds. In the back of your mind you should be asking yourself: ‘Can I sell this property, if I have to, without losing too much?,’” Lonski says.
To determine whether you can truly afford the house, consider taxes, insurance and repairs, in addition to the cost of the mortgage, which will vary based on your credit score, the type of loan you take out and the amount you put down towards the purchase out of pocket.
Leslie Tayne, founder and head attorney at Tayne Law Group in New York, advises buyers to keep expenses at 30% of your income.
“For example, when an individual has enough savings for a 20% down payment (to avoid private mortgage insurance), the mortgage payment is no more than 28% of their monthly income, and they have a 700+ credit score, buying a house can be a good financial move,” Tayne says. “Buying makes sense, too, when the value of the home decreases or there is an opportunity to purchase a property that is below market value.”