It wasn't long ago that some economic forecasters anticipated a turnaround in the home-sale market by 2012. When the economic recovery stalled and the housing market showed no sign of turning around quickly, projections for a housing recovery were pushed out two, three and even seven years.
Ken Rosen, chairman of the Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that home prices have bottomed and are increasing in areas powered by strong job growth. However, even in places where prices are rising, they are not rebounding.
Not all economists agree that home prices have hit bottom; many anticipate another 5 percent price decline over the next two years.
Rosen gives a 65 percent probability that the recovery will be choppy. He forecasts a 5 percent chance of a strong recovery and a 30 percent chance of a double-dip recession. Factors holding a recovery back are: a general sense of uncertainty that undermines consumer confidence; millions of unsold foreclosure properties; high unemployment; cutbacks in services; and tight credit conditions.
In many urban areas of the country, like Atlanta, Chicago, Miami and Phoenix, it's now cheaper to buy than to rent. Apartment rents have been rising due to increased demand for rentals from people who have lost their homes in foreclosure, empty nesters trading down, people with jobs who have decided not to buy, and people who would like to buy but who can't qualify.
The same lenders who gave risky mortgages to buyers who couldn't afford them in 2005 and 2006 are now making it difficult for qualified buyers to get financing. It used to take a credit score of 620 or more to qualify for a conventional mortgage. In those days, loans to buyers with 5 to 10 percent cash down were readily available.
Today's buyers need a credit score of 760. Most conventional lenders require a 20 percent cash down payment. If the buyers are self-employed, it can be more difficult to qualify. It's a great time to trade up, but most buyers can't qualify to buy the new home without first selling their current home.
One of the best things that could happen to the housing market at this point would be an easing of credit qualifying standards -- not to the ridiculously low level of several years ago, but to a level that would enable more creditworthy buyers to take advantage of today's low interest rates and relatively low home prices.
Good news lately bodes well for the future, but you should anticipate continued volatility. The jobless rate dropped to 8.6 percent nationally in November, the lowest level in 2½ years. The consumer confidence index rose 15 points in November, to 56. Although encouraging, if the economy were on solid ground, we would expect a reading of 90.
House Hunting Tip: It's a good time to buy a home in many areas of the country. However, it's only a good time if you buy for the long term and you have realistic expectations about what buying a home will entail. It will require maintenance, which costs money and takes time.
Your home is unlikely to be the cash cow that most buyers expected -- and many achieved -- during the bubble years. According to Robert Shiller, Yale University economist, home prices track on average with the inflation rate over long periods.
Renters with good incomes and good credit who are tired of moving could benefit from buying a home now. Just be aware that if we go into a double-dip recession, prices could drop another 10 percent in some areas. That's why you don't want to buy for the short run.
The Closing: Buyers having trouble amassing 20 percent for a down payment should check with independent banks that have more flexibility in their qualifying criteria.
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."