Tess Vigeland: So there are all kinds of factors keeping Americans from plunging into the housing market. They keep waiting for interest rates to drop even more. They wait for home prices to hit bottom — though no one is going to be able to pinpoint that until after the fact. Banks are being either exceedingly prudent or stingy about lending money for mortgages.
But there’s one thing all these factors fail to take into account — and that’s history. Anyone with a longer than, say, one- or two- decade perspective on the housing market sees the situation in a completely different light. Marketplace economics editor Chris Farrell knows one of those people.
Chris Farrell: Lately, I’ve gathered a lot of material on the housing market. It’s striking how the market seems more attractive than the conventional gloom suggests. Sure, prices might go still lower. I know there are the deadweight forces of foreclosures and underwater mortgages. But we haven’t seen mortgage rates this low for the last 40 years. Home prices seem to have stabilized in recent months. Rents are on the upswing, a traditional sign that buying is becoming more attractive.
The other day I talked over the phone to my 87-year-old mom. She and my late dad moved a lot over the years. Dad was in the military and then shipping. They sold their last house a little over a decade ago and moved into an apartment.
“I wish I were 10 years younger,” she said. I muttered something empathetic, a typical son thing about the passage of time. She brushed off my sentimentality.
“No,” she said, “If I were 10 years younger, I’d buy a home. Now. Look at these house prices and mortgage rates.”
Here’s the thing, buying a home is an incredibly optimistic investment — a financial bet that tomorrow will be better than today. Of course, sometimes we get carried away, like during the housing bubble. Even so, without an optimistic turn of mind, who’d ever take out a 30-year mortgage? I don’t know what my economic circumstances will be a year from now, let alone in 30 years time.
My parents bought their first home 62 years ago. They moved from a ratty apartment in Queens to Levittown, Long Island. My grandfather was furious. He had lost his home to foreclosure during the Great Depression and never bought again. He was angry because these two young adults with children were taking on far too much risk. That was the lesson of the Great Depression, right?
Once I asked my mom, why she and Dad had bought? She said it was because they — and all their friends — believed the world was going to become a better place. That was it, and they took out a 30-year fixed rate mortgage.
Now, I don’t know when the housing market will revive. But I do know this, if my Mom were 10 years younger she’d get a hell of a deal on a home. I just wish more politicians stoking anger and more CEOs sitting on record amounts of cash had just a sliver of her energy, her hope for the future.
Vigeland: Marketplace’s Chris Farrell. We’d like your thoughts on why the housing market has yet to recovery.
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