Real Estate

Experts sharply divided over whether surging home prices signal new bubble

Housing market boom or bust?
Housing market boom or bust?

We're living in a very different housing world today — from tighter credit to stricter regulations — compared with the dark days of the crash, but rising residential prices are starting to spark concern again, according to a major real estate investor and a leading real estate attorney who appeared Friday on CNBC.

But Ethan Penner, managing partner at Mosaic Real Estate Investors, and Shari Olefson, attorney and director of The Carnegie Group think tank, disagree about whether the crosscurrents in the property market are pointing to a bubble.

The housing market has been putting out a lot of mixed signals in this spring buying and selling season. On the one hand, there's solid, strong demand for housing. But on the other, low supply has pushed prices through the roof again, leading to weaker-than-expected home sales.

Penner told "Squawk Box" that he's not worried about these factors causing a bubble. "We are clearly at very high pricing by historical standards. But that's true of every financial asset. And in my mind, it's more of a reflection of [Federal Reserve] interest rates policy than anything else."

Average housing prices rose 5.2 percent in March, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller national home price index, which was just 4 percent shy of its 2006 peak after falling nearly 30 percent by 2012.

Olefson sees bubbles in some markets, citing the rate of housing price increases outpacing wage rises as a red flag.

Another factor sopping up supply and increasing prices is the return of the house flippers. Trying to take advantage of rising prices, investors are scooping up properties for cash, which tends to be more attractive to sellers. That's leaving mortgage-dependent buyers out in the cold.

The other side of the low-supply coin are the 4 million would-be sellers stuck in place because they're underwater, according to property analytics firm CoreLogic. In fact, about 18 percent of all homeowners with a mortgage have less than 20 percent equity, so they're not selling yet.

Builders are certainly ramping up to help on the supply side, but housing starts are nowhere near the 1.2 million unit per year historical norm. Starts are only running at about an annualized rate of 780,000 for this year.

Additionally, Olefson said she's concerned about how the 2008 housing crash has changed the way Americans think about homeownership.

"We have removed the stigma associated with foreclosures. Before the bubble and the crisis, nobody really knew what would happen if they went into foreclosure. No one knew what a short sale was. That is [now] common vernacular," she contended.

"When Americans start looking at housing as something to speculate on," she said, "that's actually the biggest indicator I think in this modern-day housing world of a bubble."

Penner countered by saying speculation should not be viewed as an overly worrisome sign. "Speculative orientations exist in every market all the time."