Not long ago, buying a home was the best investment you could make. Not only did it provide a place to live, but it provided instant wealth for many homeowners through rapid home-price appreciation. Renting seemed risky. If you didn't own a home, you'd miss out on equity buildup that would bankroll a move to a bigger, better home.
In this market, the realistic way to look at a home is as a place you want to live. Buying a home doesn't guarantee that you'll make a big return on your investment. You might if you stay long enough. Over the long term, home-price appreciation usually outpaces the inflation rate. However, this varies from one locale to the next.
House Hunting Tip: Today, many homeowners who want to move to a bigger or smaller home are choosing to rent for a while rather than buy. The pressure of rampant appreciation is nonexistent in most places. Even though interest rates are low, they're expected to stay low. So buyers trading homes have the luxury of renting until they find a home that will work for them long term. This means you aren't under pressure to buy quickly. If you buy a home that you find out doesn't work for you and sell it again within a year or so, there's a good chance you'll lose money when you take into account the costs of buying and selling.
No one knows when the economy will substantially improve. Last year, some economists predicted a double-dip recession. That appears to be less risky at the moment. In the fourth quarter of 2011, the nation's economic output grew at an annualized rate of 2.8 percent, which is not recession territory, but is not considered good enough by some economists.
On the housing scene, the number of homes sold nationally increased over the previous year in each of the last three months of 2011, according to the National Association of Realtors. Sale prices still haven't caught up with 2010 prices in most places.
Will 2012 be the turnaround year for housing? Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist, thinks that the combination of increasing home sales, record-low interest rate and low home prices "demonstrates a market in recovery."
Other good news for housing is the recent increase in consumer confidence and the decrease in the inventory of homes for sale to a level not seen since March 2005, according to NAR. Yun thinks that the drop in inventory will contribute to price stabilization and possible modest price growth in the near future.
The housing market may have hit bottom for this cycle, but any bad economic news here or abroad could cause a rocky recovery. The unemployment rate is still high; there are millions of foreclosed homes yet to be sold; and about 25 percent of homeowners owe more on their homes than they're worth in today's market.
There is pent-up demand on both the buy and sell side. One problem for buyers has been the lack of quality inventory. That may improve this year as some sellers decide they're tired of waiting for a better time to sell. The new normal is not the bubble market, but it's possible to buy and sell successfully as long as your expectations are realistic. Overpriced listings don't sell in any market.
Buyers who can find the right house and stay put for five to 10 years will probably be happy they bought now.
The Closing: Many buyers who can't stomach uncertainty won't buy now but may regret that they didn't when the market turns and buyers come rushing into the market.
Dian Hymer, a real estate broker with more than 30 years' experience, is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author of "House Hunting: The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers" and "Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer's Guide."