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."
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.
Banks blew all their depositors’ money on bad mortgage lending, amounts way out of line with salaries. This was fine for them as long as they could get mortgage-backed bond buyers to take the risk off their hands, but the bond buyers got wise, and they don’t want any more of that bad debt. In fact, they want to make the banks buy it back.
The Federal Reserve exists to protect the banks from responsibility for their own bad decisions, at the expense of everyone else, in the name of “financial stability.” So we have the Fed printing cash to buy up those bad mortgage bonds – which weakens everyone’s wealth by inflating the currency – to get the banks off the hook.
Ways to make it better
What should we do?
First, the press should stop characterizing higher house prices as better. Higher house prices are not an "improvement" and lower prices are not a "worsening" of the housing market. Higher house prices are simply inflation, and inflation is bad for buyers.
The president should say that lower housing prices are a wonderful thing for buyers, especially young families. He should point out that lower housing prices are true affordability. Increased mortgage debt is not affordability, just a trap for the unwary.
Lending regulations should eliminate comps as meaningless. All lending should be based by law on what it would cost to rent the equivalent house. Fannie, Freddie, and FHA lending programs should be stopped immediately, not gradually. It is the hope of lower prices that causes people to delay purchasing. We want to get prices back down below the cost of renting as quickly as possible for the maximum buyer benefit.
People in the Midwest and South should not be forced via their tax dollars to guarantee $729,750 jumbo Fannie and Freddie mortgages for Californians when they cannot get such a guarantee for themselves. The injustice is galling.
Banks should be heavily fined for leaving foreclosed property empty and deteriorating. Foreclosures don't ruin neighborhoods – empty houses do. If the banks won't take care of their houses quickly, the title should be auctioned off to people who will occupy and take care of them. Yes, even if the auction lowers comps or forces the bank to take a loss.
No mortgage interest deduction
There should be no mortgage interest deduction. Encouraging debt has resulted in disaster. Instead, we should promote savings, and outright ownership without any debt at all, in every generation.
Current owners usually misunderstand their own interests. If they ever want to upgrade, they will benefit more from the falling price on a bigger place than they lose from the falling price on their current place. Owners who want to upgrade should be firmly on the side of lower prices.
There is a feeling of terror that if house prices were allowed to be set by the unmanipulated free market, all consumer spending would stop and a permanent deflation would take hold. That just wouldn't happen. Consumers will always spend on things they need, and deflation will naturally stop at the point where a house is once again cheaper to own than to rent.
Patrick Killelea is a computer programmer and founder of the housing website, http://patrick.net.