Economic Turmoil Rattles Unsettled Housing Market

Aug 10, 2011
Originally published on August 10, 2011 2:00 pm

For most people, their biggest investment is their home. Following Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. credit, as well as of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, there may be even more uncertainty about buying or selling a home right now.

Russell Zanca, 47, has a three-bedroom vintage brick Georgian house on the market. The anthropology professor's home is on a quiet tree-lined street on Chicago's North Side.

"It's just a nice solid house," Zanca says.

He's selling because he is getting married and will soon move into his fiancee's house, but he's been thinking about selling for quite some time.

"Really since 2008, I kept thinking, well, next year can't be worse than this year, but once we decided to get married, which was more than a year ago, that's when we started talking about what are we doing with the houses," Zanca says.

He has a buyer and hopes to close in a month or so. Still, the troubling financial news of the past several days is making him a little nervous.

"I just started thinking, what is this gonna mean, you know. And I did think, I'm glad that it looks like I have this contract and it looks like I'm getting rid of this thing now, rather than hearing this and having the house on the market and not knowing if anyone was even going to come and see it."

What worries Zanca more is what the housing market might be like a year from now when he and his new wife plan to start looking for a bigger house.

For now, S&P's downgrade has had only one tangible impact on the housing market: It pushed nearly historic low interest rates even lower.

But does that mean it's a good time to buy?

"Absolutely, absolutely." says Ron Haddad, a senior mortgage banker with Baird & Warner Financial Services in Chicago. "The affordability for the cost of ownership is at an all-time low. Interest rates are so low; the prices with a lot of the properties in our area are absolutely at amazing levels. It makes sense to buy."

Mabel Guzman of the Chicago Association of Realtors agrees: "For the person on the street it's about jobs. So if they have job security, they're going to make that long-term investment into real estate. If they don't and they feel, 'Well, I feel the trend is changing, I could be downsized, I'm not seeing a lot of growth in my sector that I work in,' then [they] will make the short-term decision to rent, until [they] feel things have turned around."

Guzman adds that even buyers, who are in a good position right now — and sellers, for that matter — might find the frenetic pace of financial news lately and the huge volatility in the markets to be too much.

"They're overwhelmed," Guzman says. "Their head is exploding and unfortunately there are dollar signs coming out of it."

Real estate experts and economists say it's really still too soon to tell if the financial news of the past week or so will have any long-term impact on the housing market.

But to be sure, the market wasn't great to begin with, and it is still struggling to recover from the last housing crisis. It doesn't need another.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

Stocks surged yesterday, almost as absurdly as they had fallen the day before. They rallied after the Federal Reserve guaranteed super-low interest rates through the middle of 2013. And stocks regained much of what was lost in Monday's huge plunge.

In a moment, we'll talk to a big investor about the wild market swings.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk, first, about the housing market, since, for most people, their biggest investment in their home. After Standard and Poor's downgraded U.S. credit, it then proceeded to downgrade the government-backed, mortgage lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All of which adds even more uncertainty about buying or selling a home right now.

From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: Russell Zanca has quite the house he wants to sell.

RUSSELL ZANCA: You know, the wood's all original. This is all oak. Oak floor put in in 1949...

SCHAPER: The 47-year old anthropology professor has this three bedroom, one and a half bath vintage brick Georgian on the market. It's on a tree-lined street on Chicago's North Side. Quiet, except for the cicadas this time of year.

ZANCA: It's just a nice solid house.

SCHAPER: Zanca is selling because he is getting married and will soon move in to his fiancee's house. He says he's actually been thinking of selling for quite a while.

ZANCA: Well, really since 2008, I kept thinking, well, next year can't be worse than this year. And, you know, but once we decided that we were going to get married - which was more than a year ago - that's when we started talking about what do we do with the houses.

SCHAPER: So Zanca put the house on the market and has a buyer. He'll hopefully close in a month or so.

Still, the troubling financial news of the last several days is making him a little nervous.

ZANCA: Of course, I just started thinking, what is this going to mean. You know? And I did think, I'm glad that it looks like I have this contract and it looks like I'm getting rid of this thing now, you know, rather than hearing this and having just have - like have house on the market and not knowing if anyone was even going to come and see it.

SCHAPER: What worries Zanca more is what the housing market might be like a year from now, when he says he and his new wife plan to start looking for a bigger house.

F: It has actually pushed interest rates lower and they were already at nearly historic lows.

So does that make it a good time to buy?

RON HADDAD: Absolutely. Absolutely.

SCHAPER: Ron Haddad is a senior mortgage banker with Baird and Warner Financial Services in Chicago.

HADDAD: The affordability for the cost of ownership is at an all-time low. Now, interest rates are so low, the prices with a lot of the properties in our area, are absolutely at amazing levels. It makes sense to buy.

SCHAPER: The president of the Chicago Association of Realtors, Mabel Guzman, agrees. But...

MABEL GUZMAN: For the person on the street it's about jobs. So if they have job security, they're going to make that long-term investment into real estate. If they don't and they feel, well, I feel the trend is changing, I could be downsized, I'm not seeing a lot of growth in my sector that I work in, I'm going to make short-term decision - I'm going to continue to rent until I feel things have turned around.

SCHAPER: Guzman says that even buyers who are in a good position right now, and sellers for that matter, might find the frenetic pace of financial news, lately, and the huge volatility in the markets to be too much.

GUZMAN: They're overwhelmed. Their head is exploding and unfortunately there are dollar signs coming out of it.

SCHAPER: Real estate experts and economists say it is really still too soon to tell if the financial news of the last week or so will have any long-term impact on the housing market. But to be sure, it wasn't great to begin with and is still struggling to recover from the last housing crisis and it doesn't need another.

David Schaper NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.