Monday, October 17, 2011

Is it time to buy that house?

There is positive news in personal finance, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
The good news? Two key measures now suggest it's an excellent time to buy a house, either to live in for the long term or for investment income (but not for a quick flip). First, the nation's ratio of house prices to yearly rents is nearly restored to its prebubble average. Second, when mortgage rates are taken into consideration, houses are the most affordable they have been in decades.
 The article goes on the look at the figures.
But the math is turning in buyers' favor. Stock-oriented folks can think of a house's price/rent ratio as akin to a stock's price/earnings ratio, in that it compares the cost of an asset with the money the asset is capable of generating. For investors, a lower ratio suggests more income for the price. For prospective homeowners, a lower ratio makes owning more attractive than renting, all else equal.

Nationwide, the ratio of home prices to yearly rents is 11.3, down from 18.5 at the peak of the bubble, according to Moody's Analytics. The average from 1989 to 2003 was about 10, so valuations aren't quite back to normal.

But for most home buyers, mortgage rates are a key determinant of their total costs. Rates are so low now that houses in many markets look like bargains, even if price/rent ratios aren't hitting new lows. The 30-year mortgage rate rose to 4.12% this week from a record low of 3.94% last week, Freddie Mac said Thursday. (The rates assume 0.8% in prepaid interest, or "points.") The latest rate is still less than half the average since 1971.

As a result, house payments are more affordable than they have been in decades. The National Association of Realtors Housing Affordability Index hit 183.7 in August, near its record high in data going back to 1970. The index's historic average is roughly 120. A reading of 100 would mean that a median-income family with a 20% down payment can afford a mortgage on a median-price home. So today's buyers can afford handsome houses—but prudent ones might opt for moderate houses with skimpy payments.
The Chattanooga price/rent ratio is higher than in other parts of the country, but still down from previous levels. With mortgage rates at historical lows, the local market does present some good entry points for first-time home buyers.