Study: More than half of U.S. housing wealth concentrated in 10 percent of communities


Potential home buyers view a model home in San Ramon, Calif. A sizeable chunk of the housing wealth is concentrated in a few markets, a sign of the uneven nature of the housing recovery, according to a study released Wednesday. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

A sizable chunk of the nation’s housing wealth is concentrated in a few markets, and that picture is unlikely to change as the housing recovery unfolds, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Demand Institute, a nonprofit group run by the Conference Board and Nielsen, analyzed prices of owner-occupied homes in 2,200 of the largest cities and towns. It found that 10 percent of communities held 52 percent of total housing wealth — about $4.4 trillion.

By contrast, the bottom 40 percent held 8 percent of the wealth, or $700 billion.

The disparity has remained constant for years, with little movement in and out of the top and bottom rungs, the report says. Also, although home values rose across the board from 2000 to 2012, the gains totaled nearly $2 trillion for the top 10 percent but $260 billion for the bottom 40 percent.

The authors concluded that the national recovery in home values since then “masks wide local discrepancies, with some markets soaring ahead of others,” a theme that’s been sounded more than once this week with the release of various home value measures that also show wide variations among localities.

Many forecasters in the real estate industry say that the double-digit rise in home prices nationally will slow to the single digits through 2018 to a level more in line with historical norms. However, the Demand Institute dug beneath the national numbers and found that some areas could lag behind others for a long time. The study’s authors also noted that the spectacular gains made in some spots may not be as large as they seem at first glance.

The states likely to experience the strongest rise in the median price of an existing single-family home are New Mexico, Mississippi, Maine and Illinois — where prices are expected to jump more than 30 percent from early 2012 through 2018, the study said. New Hampshire rounds out the top five list at 28 percent.

In more than a dozen states, though, prices are not expected to reach their pre-crisis level by then, the report says. Topping the list is Nevada, where prices climbed dramatically during the housing boom and then crashed. Prices there are likely to be 45 percent below their 2006 peak by 2018. Arizona and Florida are expected to remain 30 percent below where they were at the height of the buying frenzy.

A return to peak levels does not mean a return to the frothy pricing that contributed to the housing bust, said Louise Keely and Kathy Bostjancic, the study’s authors.

The analysis is based on prices that are not adjusted for inflation. “When you adjust for inflation, it dampens some of the fears that we’re rebuilding the previous bubble all over again,” Bostjancic said. “That gives comfort.”

Other measures also suggest that the price increases are not getting out of hand, Bostjancic said. For instance, home prices far outstripped rental prices during the housing boom. Now that ratio is more balanced, with rents outpacing home prices in some areas.

This week, the closely watched Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index showed the largest annual gain in home prices since 2005. But the index also reported that the month-to-month increases in the 20 metropolitan areas tracked by the study were down slightly in December, the second monthly decline and a sign of slowing momentum.

Many economists attribute the slowdown to a rise in mortgage rates, which have kept some potential buyers on the sidelines. Investors are also pulling back now that prices have climbed and cheap foreclosures are no longer as plentiful. These factors have combined to lessen demand for homes and exert downward pressure on prices.

Sales of existing homes were down in January. But a bright spot emerged Wednesday when the government reported that sales of newly built homes — which is a smaller slice of the housing market — jumped in January to the highest level in more than five years. The Commerce Department said sales rose 9.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 468,000 units.

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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