February may feel like the darkest days of winter, especially this year, but it actually marks the unofficial start of the spring housing season. The weekend after the Super Bowl, home builders often kick off this busiest buying season with Presidents Day sales. Despite the frigid temperatures gripping much of the nation, the mercury on home prices has been rising—and that's where all eyes will be focused.
Two reports released this week showed big price gains in November from a year ago. The S&P/Case-Shiller index, which uses a three-month running average, showed prices up 13.7 percent from November 2012 in the nation's 20 largest housing markets.
In a report from Black Knight Financial Services (formerly Lender Processing Services), prices are up a more modest 8.5 percent from a year ago. Black Knight uses a repeat sales analysis of prices as of their transaction dates every month. The differences have to do with how the two reports factor in distressed sale pricing.
(Read more: Million-dollar homes: Down on Main Street)
Price gains have been stronger in formerly distressed markets such as Phoenix and much of California, but sales there are now slowing and inventories rising.
In the East and Midwest, where bad weather has plagued the market, sales are slow and prices are still hurt by slow foreclosure processing, especially in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Maryland.
Nationally, though, the price gains look large—large enough to worry some analysts that housing could be approaching another bubble. The big gains in some markets are already pricing out certain buyers.
But the reality is that home prices are still below the peak of the boom in the spring of 2006, and the gains are already starting to slow. That's because of fewer foreclosures nationally and higher mortgage rates. Foreclosures were down 24 percent in December from a year earlier, according to CoreLogic, and mortgage rates are over a full percentage point higher than they were last spring.
As always, prices lag sales, so we can look to recent sales for an idea of 2014 pricing in different ranges. Sales on the low end of the market have slowed dramatically, down 11.5 percent in December from a year earlier for houses priced below $100,000, according to the National Association of Realtors.
On the flip side, sales of more expensive homes are seeing big gains, up nearly 18 percent for those between $750,000 and $1 million, and up 6.5 percent for those $1 million-plus.
(Read more: 10 insane ways to pimp your megamansion)
As we head into this historically strongest season for housing, it is worth looking at what those higher-priced homes offer in markets across America. CNBC on Thursday kicked off its sneak peak with the latest edition of the Million Dollar Home Challenge. Appropriately, this one is set in markets NFL teams have reigned supreme.
(Read more: Chart of the Day: This old house)
On Thursday, seven reporters fanned out to seven markets, each displaying one home priced at about $1 million. They will not disclose their locations but will document the interiors, exteriors, marketed features and one unique bonus of each home.
Starting on CNBC's "Squawk Box," two homes are being featured. Anchors will guess the locations, and then real estate maven Dolly Lenz will disclose not just where they are but which home gives the better bang for the buck. The winner will move on to the next show. The champion will be crowned on CNBC's "Closing Bell."
Green Bay Packers
Too cold to sit through the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey? Not a problem if you watch the game in this 6,700-square-foot mansion in Green Bay. This home has a heated four-car garage and a nook to shake the snow off your boots and put away the winter gear.
Not warm enough? Take a hot bath in the master suite's Kohler-custom spa. This suite also features an office and walk-in closet.
Head to the basement and host your Super Bowl party in the built-in movie theater and entertainment center.
Our second home is a three-story, 4,500-square-foot contemporary colonial in Baltimore. This house has a two-car garage. Got guests, and lots of them? There's street parking, a 6,000-square-foot living space, a spacious gourmet kitchen, four bedrooms and 4½ baths.
This property sits on just over half an acre. And what may seal the deal is this home's entertainment area, which has a theater, a wet bar and an exercise room nearby. Did we mention two fireplaces?
Price: $1 million.
"They're both really terrific houses," Lenz said. "Taxes are high in Green Bay, they're equivalent size lots, taxes in Green Bay almost $18,000 a year, where in Baltimore they're $12,000, so we're talking 50 percent higher. That's huge on a per month basis."
The winner: Baltimore
If the Baltimore home isn't big enough, this three-story house in Pittsburgh may be the ticket. At 5,000 square feet, it sits on two wooded acres and has a swimming pool, waterfall and covered porch with plenty of seating.
This 36-year-old contemporary home also features a fireplace and a spacious bathroom suite in the master bedroom.
Our next house, in Indiana, is a traditional two-story with a three-car garage, two covered porches, a gourmet kitchen with a butler's pantry and a fireplace. This 5,900-square-foot home will also accommodate your Super Bowl party guests in its home theater with a fully stocked bar, and after the party is over, its six bedrooms make for a great sleepover.
"In Carmel [Indiana], the taxes on that house are $8,300 a year, which actually isn't bad," Lenz said. "The Pittsburgh house is $25,000 a year—that is the highest of all the houses we've selected for today, so I have to tell you that's really, really an issue for most people. You talk about $2,000 a month, just taxes."
The winner: Indiana
New Orleans Saints
Our next contender is in New Orleans, one of America's most popular cities. It's also a classic. Built in 1848, the 4,700-square-foot house on a 10th of an acre has a private courtyard, five bedrooms—one of them with a balcony—and 5½ baths.
New York Giants
Love the city life but prefer to live in a peaceful area? This New Jersey home may be for you. The 2,300-square-foot house is in a secluded waterside community. It has a private backyard with a pond and, yes, real fish.
This property has three bedrooms and three baths, with the master bedroom comprising the entire top floor. It has a walk-in closet and a Jacuzzi with a view. In this house, you can live the country life within a short commute to the city life.
Although similar in price, the New Orleans entry is far bigger than the one in New Jersey. But that's not always a good thing, according to Lenz.
The New Orleans house "is twice the size of the neighboring houses, which is an issue," she said. "You never want the largest house in the area because it's always difficult to resell that. You know, double the heating, generally double the taxes, double all the expenses—and most people are on budgets."
The winner: New Jersey
New England Patriots
Football fans, listen up! This colonial in Massachusetts is about 20 minutes away from a major NFL venue.
This 3,400-square-foot home sits on 1.8 acres—that's a lot of space for major fun, with a pool right off the back deck. This renovated house has five rooms and 3 ½ baths; the master bedroom has a walk-in closet, its own bath (with an ample tub) and a sitting area with fireplace.
"It's a terrific house. It has a lovely setting—just everything about it is nice," Lenz said. "The bedrooms are all tiny, and I have to tell you that's an issue."
This 4,800-square-foot home is back from round one. This three-story house has four bedrooms and 4 ½ baths, and two gas fireplaces, one of which is in the master suite.
The spacious home offers plenty of entertainment possibilities for football fans and friends with a theater and a recreation room.
"It's in a great location, quick distance to Hopkins and anything else in that area. Everything for Baltimore is looking up, $51,000 a year average income," Lenz said.
Price: $1 million
The winner? You guessed it: Baltimore moves on to the next round.
This 5,900-square-footer in Indiana won the second round by offering everything a Super Bowl party needs: home theater, gourmet kitchen, butler's pantry, fireplace.
This six-bedroom house has a master suite with repurposed barn doors and a spa-like bathroom.
New York Giants
This contemporary New Jersey home offers the best of city and country. In a quiet neighborhood just 10 minutes from the city, the three-bedroom, three-bath home has a dream master suite occupying the whole top floor.
Both have similar prices and taxes, so what is Lenz's pick?
"If I am advising a buyer, they can rent out the one in Edgewater—so, again, the exit strategy story. ... There's a lot of exit strategies on that one," the broker said.
The winner: New Jersey
It's time for the final: Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Giants.
Both homes are in good locations, and are priced similarly, but the Baltimore house is nearly twice as large as the one in New Jersey, whose taxes are also higher.
Which home gets the winning title?
"There's nothing to compete with it right now on the market, so it's likely next to sell," Lenz said of the winning house, which is ... Baltimore.
Do you agree? Tell us your Super Bowl home pick.