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Housing Recovery Falters With Waning Govt. Stimulus

CNBC.com

For anyone who argues the relevance of government stimulus on housing recovery, I submit the following.

One third of all home buyers in the past several months have taken advantage of the $8000 home buyer tax credit.

In the new construction market, builders say the credit has been instrumental in boosting sales as well as confidence among builders.

Since the start of the credit, the builder sentiment survey has gone from a record low in January to a steady gain three months running.

But this month, one of the three components of the survey, the "sales expectations" part that gauges potential over the next six months, slipped.

“Builders are seeing some improvement in buyer demand as a result of the first-time home buyer tax credit, and low mortgage rates and strong housing affordability have also helped to revive some optimism,” noted Joe Robson, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and a home builder from Tulsa, Okla. “However, the window is now basically closed for being able to start a new home that can be completed in time for buyers to take advantage of the tax credit before it expires at the end of November, and builders are concerned about what will keep the market moving once the credit is gone. Congress needs to act now to keep the credit from expiring just as its intended effect on buyer demand is starting to materialize.”

In addition to the tax credit, the housing market has arguably been juiced by government induced low mortgage rates. By buying up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage-backed securities, the government has pushed the 30-year fixed to near record lows, recently at 5.02 percent and now around 5.08 percent. That has pushed the refinance share of activity to 61 percent of all mortgage application volume, according to today's Mortgage Bankers Association weekly mortgage survey.

Another study from First American Core Logic, finds that refinance activity, spurred by the Obama administration's Home Affordable Refinance Program, in addition to just lower interest rates, will result in $2.3 billion of mortgage payment savings for borrowers who refinanced in the first six months of 2009.

According to the study, the median individual monthly savings was $120, a 10.5 percent reduction from the median borrower's previous mortgage payment. Over the next five years, the total benefit to homeowners who refinanced in 2009 will grow to $11.5 billion.

That's several billion dollars going back into the economy instead of going to make mortgage payments (assuming that most Americans will spend the money rather than sock it away). So it begs the question, what happens when the gravy train runs out? The tax credit is set to expire Nov. 30th and the government is only set to keep buying Fannie and Freddie securities through the end of this year.

Without low mortgage interest rates, at the very least, I'm not sure what the incentive is right now for home buyers to believe that the current housing recovery is truly sustainable.

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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