Housing industry sees an upturn

The housing industry has fallen on such hard times in 1981 that things are bound to get better next year, analysts say. The last three months of 1981 ''will represent the low for this cycle,'' predicts Phillip E. Kidd, director of economic research for McGraw-Hill Multi-List.

Others put the turnaround a bit further away. ''First quarter next year, I hope, is the bottom,'' says James Christian, chief economist for the US League of Savings Associations.

Admittedly the comeback will be from an extremely low base. In October, construction started on only 487,000 single-family homes. That is the lowest pace since the government started keeping records in 1959.

And in the short term the upturn is not expected to be robust. This year, roughly 1.09 million single- and multifamily homes will be built, says Data Resources Inc. research economist Melinda Lindquist. She sees a total of 1.33 million housing starts for 1982, a significant improvement over 1981 but far below the 2.02 million level of 1978.

Although her forecast is not the most bullish, it is still too hopeful for Michael Sumichrast, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. He expects builders to start only 1.275 million homes next year, ''assuming that interest rates continue to decline in 1982.''

There is very little hope for a housing recovery unless interest rates continue to moderate, most observers agree. ''The housing market is on its back largely because rates are so high,'' Mr. Christian says.

By the end of 1982, mortgage rates should be ''a little under the 14 percent level,'' as opposed to the rates of 17 percent or higher common today, Mr. Kidd says. Mortgage rates are expected to decline along with other interest rates as the economy weakens and increases in the personal savings rate boosts the supply of lendable funds.

One sign that home mortgage rates are moderating came Nov. 18 from California Federal Savings & Loan Association. The large Los Angeles-based S&L lowered its best price on adjustable-rate mortages to 16.75 percent from 17.25 percent. California Federal is thus one of the first mortgage lenders to drop its rates below the 17 percent level which has been common since last summer.

Still, a major takeoff in new home sales is not likely to come until rates hit the ''threshold level'' of 11 to 12 percent, says Mr. Sumichrast, the building industry economist.

Sales of existing homes are also closely tied to interest rate levels. McGraw-Hill Multi-List predicts a 20 percent increase in sales of existing homes next year, to 2.9 million units. ''In the first quarter (existing) house prices will be flat or a trifle up from the fourth quarter, due to price concessions,'' says Kidd.

He expects that sales of existing homes will begin picking up in the April-through-June period, spurred by moderating interest rates coupled with continuing price concessions by sellers.

Others think the period of price concessions and sluggish sales to last somewhat longer. ''For the next three to six months I would expect existing homes and raw land to decline in price,'' Sumichrast says.

Once the housing picture brightens, price concessions will be tougher to get. Prices will become more firm, says Christian, the savings industry economist, ''as soon as you start getting walk-in traffic in existing homes because buyers think (mortgage) rates are coming down.''

While mortgage rates may moderate, home buyers will find most loans will be offered for relatively short periods of time. Now, Kidd says, ''long term'' means a period of five to seven years. ''And the proportion of fixed-rate loans will be relatively small,'' Christian adds.

Despite the tougher mortgage terms for new home buyers, demand for new housing is expected to outstrip the supply until the ''mid- to late 1980s,'' says Ms. Lindquist at Data Resources. The spurt in housing demand will come from the baby-boom generation ''who have doubled up (in homes), or put off purchasing , go out and buy.''

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