Housing picture: 65 percent of markets worse off than before the bust

October 22, 2012

The past four years have hardly been a joyride for many of the nation’s homeowners.

But the economic suffering brought on by the housing bust has hit communities across America in vastly different ways, with some markets still ailing and others healthy, according to a new analysis released Monday by the research firm RealtyTrac.

The company looked at how housing markets in 919 counties across the country have fared since 2008, based on such factors as changes in home prices, unemployment rates and foreclosure activity. The result: 65 percent of those communities were worse off than they were in 2008.

“A house often represents a homeowner’s biggest asset — or liability,” the RealtyTrac report stated. “Unfortunately many houses fall into the liability column for U.S. homeowners.”

The list of worse-off communities include places such as Cook County in Illinois (home to Chicago), where home prices have fallen nearly 20 percent, unemployment has risen and the inventory of foreclosures has soared. Areas around Atlanta, Tucson and Salt Late City also have suffered overall declines during the past four years.

Not surprisingly, the Washington area has fared better than most places. Specifically, the RealtyTrac report cites Fairfax County as a bright spot because house prices have increases slightly, while foreclosure starts and foreclosure inventories have fallen.

The report shows that counties where home prices have declined from four years ago have seen an average price drop of $69,000. Counties where prices have risen have seen an average price increase of $49,000.

In addition, RealtyTrac noted that counties won by Republican nominee John McCain in 2008 have fared slightly better than those won by President Obama — 29 percent of the GOP-voting counties studied showed increases in home prices during the past four years, compared with 26 percent of Democratic-voting counties.

While Monday’s RealtyTrac report offers another interesting glimpse at how different housing markets have fared in recent years, it’s unlikely by itself to provide much insight how housing issues will affect the outcome of the coming election.

Housing represents a significant part of the economy — not to mention one of the main drags on growth in recent years — and the most tangible, personal investment for many Americans. But house prices and foreclosure trends are simply one factor in a much broader economic picture that voters are likely consider when placing their ballots on Nov. 6. Tax reform, energy policy, approaches to national debt — all are prominent campaign issues.

In addition, whatever the data says about the housing market over the past four years, what actually matters to the voters might come down to a question of perspective and momentum.

On the one hand, when Obama was elected in 2008, the housing boom was already becoming the biggest housing bust in generations. On the other, critic’s say the administration’s efforts during Obama’s first term haven’t been nearly enough to repair the damage caused by that collapse.

The president has argued that the situation could have been much worse without the array of efforts he took to aid struggling homeowners, including helping more people refinance their loans and forging a major settlement with the big banks. And over the past year there has been marked improvement, with prices stabilizing in many markets and homebuilders ramping up construction again.

Neither candidate has done much talking about the housing conundrum on the campaign trail. But whether voters around the country believe the housing market is headed toward better days or still mired in its post-bubble slump could influence which box they check in the voting booth.

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
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