The spring housing market started early this year, not because of higher-than-average temperatures but because of hotter-than-average demand and overheating home prices.
This year may be the starkest example of a post-recession reality that is redefining housing as we know it.
"This spring housing market is shaping up to be another doozy for homebuyers," said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for home-listing website Trulia. "Housing affordability is the key to helping break yet another year of gridlocked inventory, but all signs are showing that homes this spring will be much less affordable than last year."
Affordability is being hit on several fronts: The foreclosure crisis is over, but it left behind an entirely new landscape for potential buyers. Entry-level homes are scarce because investors bought tens of thousands of them during the crisis and turned them into rentals. The number of single-family rentals jumped to more than 15 million, up from about 11 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Census.
Homebuilders continue to operate well below normal levels because of higher costs and a lack of labor, and thousands of construction workers left the business during the recession, never to return. Builders don't focus on entry-level homes because the margins are simply too tight, and prices for new construction are also rising at a fast clip.
What's more, credit is still tight, and the youngest cohort of buyers, the millennials, are delaying marriage and parenthood, the two biggest drivers of home ownership. The shortage of homes for sale has now pushed prices to a 30-year high, according to S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller. Rising mortgage rates only add to the pressure.
"Home prices continue to advance, with the national average rising faster than at any time in the last two-and-a-half years," said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. "With all 20 cities [in the S&P/Case-Shiller Index] seeing prices rise over the last year, questions about whether this is a normal housing market or if prices could be heading for a fall are natural."
At a Sunday open house in Los Angeles this weekend, nearly a dozen house hunters showed up before the scheduled start. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom home was reasonably priced, in a desirable neighborhood and move-in ready.