If you're one of the 57 million homeowners in the country and you'd like to sell your house, be prepared to chop your asking price by about $3,000 to $4,000, and you can fatten the reduction to $5,000 if you wait to the prime April-to-June selling period.
The reason: The housing market is more of a disaster area than you can possibly imagine.
There are, yould you believe, over a million homes up for sale -- about 750,000 old or existing units and another 336,000 brand-new models. And the number is likely to balloon further in the months ahead, as evidenced by the sharp surge in broker listings.
This sickening news for the homeowner (of which I'm one) comes on the heels of a dismal housing note -- namely, that 1980 was the first year since the mid-'60s that our home prices failed to outrun the inflation rate. Home values last year rose about 11 percent vs. a 13 1/2 percent inflation rate.
Moreover, if the economists know what they're talking about when they say mortgage rates (now around 15 percent to 15 1/2 percent) are likely to remain high because of an ongoing high level of inflation, then we've really got to question those real estate bulls who keep telling us that our house is a continuing can't-miss inflation hedge.
My grim findings, fankly worse than I suspected, come from leading industry sources -- namely, the National Association of Realtors (with a 750,000 membership) and the National Association of Home Builders. And they clearly belittle the hope that a peppier housing market is just around the corner.
Ken Kerin, the research vice president of the National Association of Realtors, puts it bluntly: "This is the worst wringer we've been through in the post-World War II period . . . and that includes the 1966 credit crunch when mortgage rates went through the roof and savings and loans were forced to shut off the lending faucets."
The association's latest figures show the sales of existing homes running at a 2.6 million annual rate in January, down from 2.96 million in December. And Kerin believes that by March, "we could threaten the low point" -- a reference to last May's sales rate of 2.3 million (which was a five-year low).
Why so glum?
"Because we don't see any letup," Kerin tells me. "It's strictly the high mortgage rates. And while rates may come down, maybe to around 13 percent, they're not about to come down very much because inflation is bound to remain high."
Kerin estimates that about a third of all existing home sales now involve the seller assisting in the financing of the deal (through IOUs and second mortgages). And he sees the possibility of the figure increasing in the months ahead.
January housing starts were up 3.4 percent from December, but Michael Sumichrast, the National Association of Home Builders' chief economist, predicts a sharp reversal. He figures the soon-to-be reported February numbers will show a 10 percent to 20 percent drop from the previous month. And yet another hefty decling is envisioned in March.
Aside from those high mortgage rates -- which Sumichrast figures allows only about 6 percent of the households in the country (or less than 4 million families) to qualify for a new home -- our housing expert also sees the market suffering from a slumping economy and the sizable inventory of unsold new homes. That inventory is equivalent to over eight months' worth of home sales vs. a little over six months' worth last summer.
Some doomsayers are talking about the possibility of an actual decline in home values this year, but Sumichrast doubts it. He figures -- what with inflation the way it is -- that existing home prices will rise about 10 percent this year from the 1980 national median of $62,100. But such a rise would represent the lowest such advance since 1973 when the value of the average home moved up a "mere" 8.2 percent.
You're also going to have to shell out about 9 percent more for a new home. Higher wage and labor costs (among other things) should drive up the median price this year to about $70,700 from the 1980's $64,600 according to Sumichrast's calculations.
So there you have it -- a bum outlook, to say the least. By the way, if you should just happen to want to move to West Hempstead, N.Y., have I got a house for you.