The long boom in the real estate market attracted many people into the industry, with the National Association of Realtors' ranks growing to more than 1 million members. Because the upcycle lasted for 10-15 years in many markets, hundreds of thousands of agents have not experienced a significant down market.
By looking at down markets in the late '80s and early '90s, we can make some observations on past real estate declines.
Price declines are relatively shallow. During most downturns, prices tend to decline in the range of 3-6 percent annually with cumulative declines of less than 20 percent. Los Angeles was the exception in recent history, experiencing a cumulative decline of more than 27 percent. Compare this with the NASDAQ index, which was over 5,000 at the height of the dot-com boom in 2000 and is still at only 2,791 seven years later. Of course, because houses are a highly leveraged purchase, a percentage decline even in the teens can eliminate your equity entirely if you bought too close to the market peak.
Down markets can be lengthy. Market observers frequently say that the market will turn up "next year." This is often wishful thinking. Past downturns have persisted for a number of years, not just one or two. Real estate markets are often characterized as "sticky downwards." That is, when home sellers don't get the price they want, they opt to take their properties off the market and wait. While this behavior may cushion the downturn in prices short term, it tends to extend the duration of a market correction.
The big picture matters. Most downturns are a manifestation of larger economic conditions. Generally a national or local recession with substantial job losses drives real estate corrections. The current downturn in Detroit has been the most severe of any major market because of auto industry-related job losses. Many real estate markets declined during the national recession of the first Bush presidency in the early '90s. In the case of the Los Angeles market decline, the downturn was extended and deepened by an earthquake and race riots.
So what does this mean for real estate professionals in the current downturn? Be prepared for the weak market to last a fairly long time.
In our view, prices are likely to continue to decline by low- to mid-single-digit percentages annually for the several years in the high-cost markets that had the greatest run-up. The wildcard is a recession. If that happens, we will take another downward lurch before we gradually settle to a bottom and begin the upcycle again.
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