How important was home buyer credit?

A man pounds nails into part of a wall frame as he helps build a home in Oakland, Calif.

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Kai Ryssdal: This is going to sound like I'm trying to be cute, but I'm really not. The home building industry is depressed. The National Association of Home Builders' monthly index of builder confidence came out today. Not so good. It's down to where it was in February, before we heard all those faint hopes about housing just maybe having turned itself around. Now that that home buyer's tax has expired, builders don't seem to think people are going to want to buy houses anymore.

So we asked Brett Neely to explore how important that credit was or maybe wasn't.


Brett Neely: Almost one in six home buyers this year will take advantage of the tax credit. That's according to rough estimates from the National Association of Realtors. First-time buyers got an $8,000 credit, while everyone else got $6,500. Was it worth it?

Nicolas Retsinas is a housing expert at Harvard University.

Nicolas Retsinas: The measure is, did it help stabilize the market, did it stop the free fall, I think in large measure it did. Now it was an expensive way to do that; it cost over $12 billion.

Expensive because some of those buyers probably would have bought a house without the tax credit. In fact, the credit's biggest impact may have had to do with timing, says Conrad DeQuadros at RDQ Economics.

Conrad DeQuadros: If you were going to buy a home at any time over the next several months, you were incentivized to bring that decision forward and take advantage of the tax credit.

Now it's time for the hangover. Applications for new mortgages are falling, as are other indicators of the housing market. The government can't prop up home sales forever, says DeQuadros.

DeQuadros: At some point, housing activity is going to have to be driven by the normal fundamentals.

Like job and income growth. Harvard's Nicolas Retsinas says this economic recovery won't look like past ones.

Retsinas: Past recessions have often ended with new home building and those construction jobs who pulled it forward. I think given the new variable of large numbers of foreclosures, I don't think that the recovery is going to be on the back of the home building industry this time.

In Washington, I'm Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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