The Mean Economy: For housing industry, a fast fall and a slow rebound

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Sy Harding, a columnist at Forbes magazine, said the budding revival in the housing market this year may mark a tentative end to the long American nightmare. The National Association of Realtors reported that the number of investor-owned homes surged last year by 64.5 percent, while the number of owner-occupied homes fell 15.5 percent due to the record wave of foreclosures — trends that have continued this year.

Housing revival is critical

“For the past year, real estate speculators and investors have been playing a perhaps heroic role by diving back in on expectation that the real estate market is bottoming,” Mr. Harding said.

The development is ironic, since housing investors got much of the blame for running up house prices in a frenzy of speculation during the bubble years.

“They had played a significant role in creating the bubble — signing contracts, often on multiple homes, making virtually no downpayments, not intending to ever live in or even rent out the homes, but to simply flip them for a quick profit,” Mr. Harding said. “Builders could hardly keep up with demand for a while, but wound up with wastelands of partially completed developments and condo projects, especially in the Sunbelt states.”

Today’s housing investors are not like the infamous “flippers” who contributed to the housing bubble, however, as they are playing a more constructive role in restarting the engines of the long-stalled market, he said. The Realtor group said that investors today appear to view housing more as a long-term investment and are planning to hold onto their properties for five years on average before re-selling.

If there is a genuine revival in housing under way, the stakes for workers and the economy couldn’t be bigger.

Many analysts believe the depression in real estate has been the single biggest factor holding back the overall pace of economic growth and hiring during the three-year recovery. Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke has said the U.S. economy cannot experience a sustained recovery without housing.

“If you fix the housing crisis, you fix the job market,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm.

Much of the sluggishness in the broader economy “can be traced back to ongoing weakness in the housing market,” he said. “Job seekers cannot relocate to where the job opportunities exist because they are tied down by underwater mortgages and little savings to fund a move.”

The housing depression also is holding back recovery in the broader economy by “stifling demand for consumer goods and services” related to housing, Mr. Challenger said. “When people buy new homes, they also buy new TVs, washers and dryers, refrigerators and furniture. The lack of demand for these big-ticket items translates to a lack of hiring” across the economy.

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