The sprinting housing market of the past few years is going to slow down to catch it's breath, but it's not going to quit racing.
In part, this is will be the result of shifting demographics and housing needs of America. Government actions to stimulate housing may help keep up the pace in coming years.
In past months, record-high interest rates have dried up some mortgage funds, and although the almost unseemly rate of appreciation in house prices has moderated, many discretionary home buyers have been forced out of the market in recent months.
And those same high interest rates have made it more difficult for builders to build. Taken together, these factors are contributing to fewer housing starts for next year and the next couple of years, housing analysts say.
The National Association of Home Builders' chief economist, Michael Sumichrast, expects that housing starts will fall to 1.3 million or 1.4 million next year, compared with 2 million in 1977 and 1978. The total for 1979 probably will be about 1.7 million.
By 1981, however, Sumichrast predicts that starts will rebound slightly to 1.5 million, rising to 1.7 million in 1982. Then starts will return to their boom level of 2 million a year for the rest of the 1980s.
The vitality of a market that had been torrid for three years was sapped by recent mortgage interest rates in excess of 13 percent.
But availability of mortgage credit in the 11 or 12 percent range could spark another home-buying spree, especially when it is generally perceived that interest rates will never again fall as low as 10 percent.
In fact, there already is some speculation that mortgage rates may fall to 11 percent before the end of next year. Some of that descent may result from federal programs to stimulate housing purchases, probably implemented before ballots are cast next November.
Government action is expected soon that would stimulate passbook savings, which would make more money available to lend for mortgages, and close some of the loopholes that have encouraged big depositors to take their money out of thrift institutions.
But what will really keep the housing industry from taking a drastic dive this decade is the growing segment of the population between 25 and 44 years of age. This group, traditionally the backbone of the work force and the prime purchaser of houses, will increase by one third during the 1980s, demographers predict. These folks will want to buy houses.
Added to that are the needs of older persons, whose households are expected to increase from 16 million to 19.5 million in the next decade.
Donald Hovde, recent president of the National Association of Realtors, says the baby boom, the baby bust and the growth of the nation's elderly population have become the most significant elements of what can be considered the future of the total housing market.
Although the housing market will be slowing somewhat, it is not expected to stagnate by any means. While it is waiting for the inevitable break in the dam to push prices and purchases above today's inflationary levels, the housing market will be growing and changing in a different direction.
Homes and apartments built and sold in the 1980s may change markedly. A recent study by Arthur D. Little Inc., a research firm based in Cambridge, Mass., pointed out that the nation's lower birth rate and the heavier proportion of persons over 60 will yield smaller households. Pinched by inflation and rising energy costs, those smaller households are more likely to want less-spacious detached houses, medium-size town houses and rental and condominium apartments of varying sizes.
If history is any barometer, housing prices are likely to continue to increase in the 1980s. The dwelling that can be bought for $75,000 today is likely to cost at least $150,000 by 1989.
Costs of energy, which have risen recently far more than housing costs, are seen maintaining an upward curve. Taxes are unlikely to decline and probably will increase, despite new citizen protests.
Under those conditions, it is likely that many American households will seek ownership of dwellings that are smaller than the spectacular homes that seemed to dominate the construction of the 1970s. Even small families have recently been stretching their financial muscles to live in far more space than is really needed.
There's still another housing element that can be expected to become stronger in the 1980s. It is the mobile or manufactured house, one that can be built in a factory and then moved or assembled on site.
Robert Coon, national loan guaranty officer for the Veterans Administration, sees the 1980s as a period when the economic crunch resulting from exorbitant energy costs will make "single, manufactured houses a truly viable option for persons in the lower and lower-middle income ranges."
Coon, who pointed out that nearly 45 percent of all American households have at least one member with prior military service and therefore VA loan guaranty eligibility, added that the affordability factor is the predominant reason that more families will turn to factory-built dwellings.
Housing developers are also beginning to recognize that fact of housing life. Nearly 70 percent of all Americans now live in homes that they own. Obviously, the 30 percent who live in rental dwellings either live there by choice or by lack of choice.
Fewer than 5 percent of all renting households may be able to afford to buy a house of their choice but choose rather to live in rental properties and use their capital for other purposes.
But 25 percent, possibly more, of the non-owning households are now unable financially to cope with high housing prices and interest rates. Due to the generally high costs of living, many also have found it difficult if not impossible -- even with two-income households -- to accumulate the down payments required to buy houses costing even $50,000.
If there's a hope for non-subsidized homeownership for persons and households with incomes under $15,000, it's likely to line in the factory-built home that was formerly called mobile. Indeed, few are ever moved from the site on which they are first set. And more developers are creating lots that will permit site-assembled factory houses to be placed on permanent foundations.
When that housing product can be offered to the public in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, a new group of potential buyers will be developed across the land, particularly in small towns near big cities and in semi-rural areas.
Meanwhile, the characteristics of the American family in the 1980s and its impact on housing style and preferances are not being ignored by the conventional home building industry. Most members of the National Association of Home Builders use traditional "stick-building" techniques to create houses in their subdivisions.
But the volume producers have adopted what are called panelized or component building programs to produce sections of the total house, especially rafters, trusses and window and wall sections. This work is done in small factories, owned by the builder or a suplier.
Vondal S. Gravlee, who as president of NAHB has been calling attention to the general economic costs of permitting a downturn in new housing starts, said recently that the homebuilders' big convention in Las Vegas in January will focus on providing smaller houses without sacrificing amenities.
Instead of the 1970-style house with formal living and dining rooms, recreation (family) room and den-library, the typical house of the 1980s may feature what can be called the "great room." It's a concept that combines all those rooms into one large area.
While the smaller house inevitably has an energy-saving potential over its larger cousins, the era of the 1980s is also likely to see more attention paid to energy conservation through insulation, structure and design. In addition, solar energy adaptations are more likely to be offered in production houses.
Meanwhile, home builders are urging Congress to reactivate a program to provide below-market mortgage rates to home buyers, with the federal government picking up the difference between that lower figure and the market rate (the mortgages would be sold at a loss).