The nation's housing industry should remain fairly stable through the next year despite an expected slowdown in general economic growth, economists and industry officials told 16,000 Realtors meeting for their annual convention here this week.
Mortgage interest rates are expected to continue at present levels or drop a quarter of a percentage point over the next 12 months, and the pace of housing appreciation is expected to outdistance inflation slightly, as it has in the last year.
Housing economists told the Realtors, however, that with slower overall economic growth in the next year, construction of new houses and housing resales also will continue at moderate levels, defusing hopes among the members of the National Association of Realtors here that lower mortgage interest rates would trigger a housing boom.
"We're looking forward to a good economic year," said Clark Wallace, 1986 NAR president. "Not what you would call a barn-burner, but an upbeat year."
Dave Roberts Sr., 1985 president of the association, said that a move by the Federal National Mortgage Association earlier this year to tighten credit standards for people getting mortgages was "having an impact" on the housing industry and making it difficult for first-time home buyers to find loans.
Known as Fannie Mae, the secondary mortgage market company announced this summer that it will stop purchasing particularly risky types of adjustable-rate and graduated-payment mortgages and will require significantly higher income levels for people putting very little money into a down payment.
Fannie Mae purchases roughly 10 percent of the home loans written by mortgage lenders, providing the lenders with money to make more loans. The company keeps some loans but also packages other mortgages and sells securities backed by them to investors.
"First-time home buyers, who have not had an opportunity to build equity, are getting hit by a double-whammy," Roberts said. "It's going to be tough for people who can't come up with the scratch to meet higher down-payment requirements."
NAR officials told visiting members of Congress that reduction of the federal deficit was more important to them than tax reform, because continued double-digit mortgage interest rates have made housing difficult to afford for many middle-income families.
While there are several tax reform proposals the association vehemently opposes, Roberts said that the national budget deficit was the "number one priority for the Realtors" in the coming months and that the association supports efforts to pass the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings proposal, a bill in Congress that would mandate a gradual reduction of the federal deficit.
Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) thanked the Realtors for using their considerable political clout to help bring attention to the federal deficit as "public enemy number one" and urged them to become even more active in local and national politics.
"This is the most effective grass-roots organization in America," Dole said. "I've seen what this group can do in my state and at the national level. One reason we can't reduce the deficit is because we don't have the votes. All we can do is influence political leaders at the ballot box."
While only a third of the licensed real estate brokers in the country are members of the NAR, the association still claims some 680,000 members and has significant political clout. It has worked closely with Congress on tax reform and housing issues.
The association said in a statement released this fall that the tax reform proposals would "result in a higher deficit, less employment, increased cost to homeowners and renters, a severe decrease in the value of existing real estate and less homeownership."
Wallace, a Realtor from Moraga, Calif., said that while he believes passage of extensive tax reform is unlikely this year, the association fears "piecemeal" tax reform and will continue to fight the proposals now pending before the House Ways and Means Committee.
In response to a question about which provisions of the tax reform proposals under consideration are of concern to the real estate industry, Wallace said, "All of them."
He said that the association was unwilling to give on one issue to get its way on another because "if we said we'd give on one side but not on the other, I would have an insurrection on my hands.
"We're going at the whole thing," Wallace said. "We aren't going to be the sacrificial lamb." CAPTION: Picture, Cape Cod house off Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase that attracted three offers and sold in eight days for $226,000. By Ellsworth J. Davis -- The Washington Post