When Will the DC Real Estate Market Turnaround?

March 22, 2008.

I’m just kidding, of course. I wish I had a crystal ball to be able to answer that directly. No one knows for sure, of course; it ranges from the NAHB’s projection of 2008 (ever notice how industry projections are always six months from the date of the projection??) to this Barron’s projection of 2011.

Lots of people are confident that this is part of a normal and predictable cycle. Everyone knows that real estate moves in 7 year cycles as in this article. Or maybe you believe in Hoyt’s 18 year cycles, as described here. On the other hand, you can be confident this is part of the 50-60 year cycle, shown here. This one is my favorite: it’s all aligned with the nodes of the moon, which means it’s an 18-20 year cycle.

So there you have it: the market will turn in either 1, 3, 7, 18, 20, 50 or 60 years. Everyone all clear on that?

But when do you start counting the years? This article from May 2005 says that the bubble won’t pop at all until 2009-1010. My point is simply that you can read predictions far and wide, and they’re just that: predictions–but no consensus, at least not yet.

National projections don’t mean much to an individual market though. In our case, the good news in this area is that the Washington, DC, area is often considered a contender to be the first to turn around (see article here) because of its extraordinarily strong job market and relative, i.e., long-term, housing shortage (see slide 38 of GMU study here.) and also my commentary here.

So is this a good time to buy? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on your particular situation. Buyers should think of the following criteria:

(1) Renting as an alternative: Do the financial analysis of rent-vs-buy using this calculator. Consider the mortgage interest and property tax deductions, the alternative use of funds (assuming you invest them, not spend them), and capital gains exclusion on sale.

(2) Stability: Is your financial situation stable for the next 3 years? e.g., Is your job secure? Are you expecting any life changes like marriage or children that might prompt a move? If you’re not going to live in the property at least 3 years, it’s nearly impossible to break even in this market due to transaction costs.

(3) Responsibility: Do you want the responsibility of owning a home? The maintenance headaches all become yours, but so do the benefits like stable payments (depending on your mortgage type), the ability to paint or remodel, permission to have a pet, getting away from your current neighbors, and building a “home” with furniture that you didn’t have in college. (I moved 10 times in 10 years prior to buying my home–boy was I ready to not move again!)

Once a buyer has considered these points, it may make sense to at least start the process. Depending on which areas you are searching, you may find that the market is trending flat or even up. This is particularly true in areas that are close-in to major job markets (e.g., parts of Northwest DC and Arlington). It takes a buyer months to get to know a particular neighborhoods they’re searching, and after that it gets easier to recognize a property that is a good value versus the other inventory–the trick is that you have to be ready to jump on it when you see it, and that takes some prep time.

If you’re considering starting your search, contact me to discuss specifics on neighborhoods, and whether it makes sense to buy now or wait.

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