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What does a housing recovery even look like?

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Everyone can agree that the housing market hasn’t fully recovered yet. But the mixed signals from the sector have made it much harder to tell how far we’ve come--and how far we still have to go. ROBERT GALBRAITH REUTERS

On the one hand, demand is still weak: mortgage applications are down, housing prices have continued to fall, and rising foreclosures could depress them even further. On the other hand, single-family home construction is no longer in free fall, delinquencies are down, and residential real-estate investment -- including new home building and renovations -- has picked up for the first time in years.

As a result, there are lots of contradictory takes on the housing market right now, with some already heralding a “recovery winter” for housing while others maintaining that we haven’t hit bottom yet, much less bounced back. As a result, “there seems to be some disconnect or bit of talking past one another on the issue of a housing recovery,” writes Karl Smith. He puts himself in the Recovery Winter camp, arguing that a potential shift away from single-family toward multi-family housing could explain some of the seemingly contrary indicators.

Jed Kolko has proposed another way to make sense of these mixed signals. Kolko--chief economist at real-estate search engine Trulia--has created a “Housing Barometer” to gauge the housing recovery. The index averages three factors--new construction starts, existing home sales, and the delinquency plus the foreclosure rate--setting 0 percent as the lowest the indicators have been and 100 percent as back to normal. Kolko calculates that the barometer for February 2012 is at 34 percent--that is, we’re one-third of the way back to a full housing recovery.

By that measure, Kolko estimates that housing won’t get back to 100 percent until late 2015. In other words, he concludes, “we still have a long way to go.”

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