Washington is making the housing crisis even worse
Bad policy and a bad economy make it a terrible time to buy. Instead of pushing cheap credit, Uncle Sam must let the market lower prices.
Menlo Park, Calif.
Our long national bender of house price inflation has finally ended. Now all that remains is for the government to get out of the way and let the housing market sober up completely. Unfortunately, Washington is still tempting Americans to have one more drink – "on the house."Skip to next paragraph
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Real value of a house
As I explain on my website, http://patrick.net, the value of a house depends entirely on what it would rent for. It doesn't depend on what you paid for it, or on how much you spent to build it. If you can save money every month by renting the same quality house in a nearby location, then it is foolish to buy at that asking price. The price is just too high.
Rents, in turn, depend on salaries. Try walking into a bank and asking for a loan to pay your rent. You know what the answer will be. So why is it that the bank will lend us vast amounts of money to take out a mortgage and take on expenses that will be much higher than rent for the same place?
Because it is profitable to get people into debt. Those profits result in political pressure to pass laws encouraging mortgage debt. For everyone above the buyer on the food chain – from seller to real estate agent to bank to Congress, the White House, and the Federal Reserve – there is a strong interest in getting young and inexperienced families deeply into debt. Once in debt, new buyers, too, become part of the game – they need to find new housing victims if they want to eventually sell at a profit.
Thus we have the mortgage interest deduction, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and other harmful government programs, all of which serve primarily to increase the amount of mortgage debt. Since most people don't do math very well and will take on as much mortgage debt as they can, this government facilitation simply results in higher house prices.
Higher prices negate any benefit to the buyer – but they do benefit people higher up the food chain. Those profits at the expense of the buyer get funneled into campaign contributions that keep the system in place, or make it even more pernicious.
At some point, the cost of owning shot right past the cost of renting. Owners were losing money, month after month, on a real cash flow basis relative to renting. But they didn't care because they felt rich from the implied increase in their house's value. They could even refinance at the greater valuation implied by "comps" – appraisals or sale prices of similar properties nearby – and pull money out to cover their monthly shortfall.
That worked until it didn't, and America woke up with a dreadful hangover, still ongoing. What's worse is that many powerful financial interests are determined to make sure that we never sober up.
Special interests working against us
Older sellers depend on young families’ getting themselves into debt. Less debt for the young means lower selling prices for the old.
Real estate agents, after years of blathering about how house prices only go up, are finally faced with the incontrovertible reality that house prices also go down. Sales volumes also go down when prices are finally recognized as being too high. The lack of turnover and lower prices directly hurt their commissions.