By: David Streitfeld
March 29, 2010
DES MOINES -- Nine hundred days after putting their house on the market, Andrew and Jane Palestini were beginning to think they might be stuck in Iowa forever.
"I can't feel happy," said Mr. Palestini, a retired administrative law judge with the Social Security Administration. "Just relieved."
After several disastrous months for home sales across the country, when volume dropped by 23 percent, the pace appears to be picking up again. The number of Des Moines homes under contract in February rose by a third from the January level. The number of pending contracts jumped 10 percent in Naples, Fla., 14 percent in Houston and 21 percent in Portland, Ore.
These deals will be reflected in the national sales reports when they become final, this month or next. There is no evidence that prices have begun to move in response to the higher volume. Indeed, so many homes are coming on the market that prices might well fall further.
Real estate agents say buyers and sellers are hurrying to take advantage of the tax credit, which is worth up to $8,000 for home buyers. But the last-minute rush is also prompting some foreboding about what will happen to the market on April 30 when the credit ends -- and whether it is too risky to let it end at all.
James M. Poterba, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls this "the exit strategy problem."
"If you have a short-run program to stimulate demand, it's always tricky to figure out how you gently remove it without going off a precipice," he said.
Arguments for extending the tax credit a second time are just beginning. Robert Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale and co-developer of the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller housing price index, is an early advocate. He thinks the credit was a bad idea that nevertheless the market cannot do without.
"You don't make drug addicts go cold turkey," Mr. Shiller said. "The credit interferes with the market in an arbitrary way, but ending it now would be psychologically powerful. People will be in a bad mood about buying a house." He advocates phasing it out gradually.
In some states, worries about the housing market are trumping fiscal considerations. They are adopting or extending tax credits or other supportive measures in hopes of bringing the market to life.
California last week renewed a $10,000 credit that proved popular last year, allocating $200 million for it despite a state budget crisis. New Jersey legislators just introduced a bill that would give buyers a $15,000 credit spread over three years. South Carolina recently announced a $7,000 down payment assistance program for teachers, police officers and firefighters.
As it has been for several years, housing remains the most coddled and the most troubled sector of the economy. Outside the realm of real estate, many of the government banking programs created to deal with the crisis have ended, and credit markets have largely returned to normal. On March 8, the Federal Reserve held its final auction in a two-year-old program that offered banks emergency short-term loans.
A few days earlier, however, government regulators extended a refinancing program for homeowners whose properties had plunged in value. Originally due to expire in June, the program has been renewed to the middle of 2011 "to support and promote market stability," the Federal Housing Finance Agency said.
On Monday, just three days after substantially expanding its antiforeclosure programs, the Obama administration announced another $600 million to finance innovative measures to help defaulting families in five hard-hit states: North Carolina, Oregon, Ohio, Rhode Island and South Carolina. The first round of financing, announced last month, provided $1.5 billion to states including California and Florida.
Supported by an array of government programs aimed at both reducing foreclosures and encouraging traditional sales, housing was supposed to be on the road to a solid recovery.
An earlier version of the tax credit created a rush to buy in the fall, when people thought it would expire Nov. 30. The housing industry argued that sales would fall off a cliff if the credit were not extended and broadened, so Congress went along.
Stan Humphries, the executive in charge of data and analytics at the housing site Zillow.com, said government support was crucial in breaking housing's acute fall in 2007 and 2008, but that it had also obscured the actual weakness of the market.
"Many people got the sense last year that we had bottomed out and were going to rebound in a V-shaped recovery," he said.
Instead, the sales volume of existing homes declined in December more steeply than in any month in the four decades that such numbers have been tracked. Sales dropped again in January and February. Meanwhile, the sales volume of new homes fell in January to the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1963, a record broken again in February.
Buyers who want the tax credit must sign a deal by April 30 but would have until June 30 to close. Consequently, if sales volume is going to plunge after the credit expires, it will not show up until the numbers for July are reported. While Mr. Humphries says he does not expect sales that month to fall by December's record rate, he predicts a long period of merely "dragging along the bottom," with prices to match.
That was just what the Palestinis were worried about.
If they did not sell by April 30, they anticipated having to lower their price yet again, to compensate any buyer for the credit he would no longer get. It also meant they would not get a credit themselves on buying a new home in Philadelphia, pushing down what they could afford to pay.
It has been an unexpected ordeal. The Palestinis bought their spacious ranch house in the Des Moines suburb of Clive for $185,000 in 1995, after looking for only three days. "My feeling was it would never be a problem selling," said Jane Palestini, a retired specialist in adoptions from China. "Ha, ha, ha."
In early 2007, the house across the street sold in three days, but the Palestinis spent the summer getting their place ready. By the time they put it on the market that September for $265,000, prices were falling.
For months, they lived in a state of readiness for prospective buyers. To minimize clutter, they carted off many of their possessions to self-storage. They bought new pillows and kept them mounded on the beds. They bought fresh flowers and baked hundreds of cookies.
The months became years. They know their mistake: They should have kept cutting the price until they sold. But every dollar they dropped their price was one dollar less for a down payment in Philadelphia.
Their house is under contract for $225,000. After paying the agent's commission and subtracting the cost of remodeling the kitchen, the Palestinis are at best breaking even. "You just have to ignore how much it's going to hurt," Mr. Palestini said.
At least they have escaped whatever trouble is to come this summer.
Their agent, Jim Heldenbrand, told them he hoped the credit would "get the momentum going." But he also mentioned the plans of a colleague in real estate: As soon as the credit expires, the man plans to get on his Harley and just keep riding south.