Will inflation help the housing market: how real estate is affected

by Dan Krell
© 2011

Homes for saleMany people believe that as inflation increases, home values decrease. The argument put forth is that as purchasing power decreases, so do the value of your assets.  However, some economists say that it is flawed thinking to assume that housing, like other goods, decline in value as inflation increases.

Collin Barr reported that Yale economist Robert Shiller (coauthor of the Case-Shiller Home Price Index) has spent years collecting data that indicates “that house prices over time tend to rise more or less in step with inflation” (fortune.com: Why house prices will keep falling; March 29, 2011). That’s all well and good, except that home prices far exceeded the rate of inflation during the recent “bubble years;” and is reported as still having a 25% gap from baseline. So, unless we see an increasing rate of inflation, some believe that home prices drop another 20%.

Brian Summerfield, Online Editor of REALTOR® Magazine, describes (in an April 5th Realtor.org blog post) a scenario of how inflation can lift the current housing market. By highlighting affordability, he explains the cost of housing is currently cheaper to own a home (compared to renting). Additionally, as inflation creeps up and eats more of the family budget by decreasing buying power, the a person’s housing budget will be pressured by rising rents and buying a home will be increasingly more attractive.

Of course, Mr. Summerfield’s scenario is hinged on several “caveats”: interest rates will have to remain relatively low (he says no higher than 7%); implementation of “accessible” 30 year fixed mortgage programs; housing supply will have to remain low; and no additional economic crises.

In several Realtor.org blog posts, Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist for the National Association of Realtors®, discussed inflation and housing. In an April 18th post he explained that “Unexpected inflation” does erode savings, however actually benefits borrowers. Additionally, in a September 15th post reporting that housing starts are the lowest since World War II, Yun explains that some investors are returning to undervalued real estate as a hedge against inflation. Since new housing is not on track with population growth, some believe there will be a housing shortage that will cause increased demand in coming years.

House for saleThe reality is that although there is a relationship between home prices and inflation, it does not signify causality. In other words, although one may have an effect on the other, housing and inflation are independent. Even in Brian Summerfield’s scenario, he is cautious to provide conditions to bring his vision to reality. And no one has talked about the affects of stagflation.

When talking about a recovery, the typical homeowner should remain cautious- especially in espousing a view that a home is an investment vehicle. Even though our consumer oriented society has encouraged people to pay for their lifestyles with their home’s equity, it’s now widely decried as irresponsible.

In light of the current economic conditions, many potential home buyers are becoming more pragmatic as well. Even though the basic benefits of homeownership include affordability, community, etc, many potential home buyers view owning a home as anchor that will keep them tied to a specific area. And in a time when jobs are scarce, many people want the freedom of mobility in case they have a career opportunity elsewhere.

Will inflation help the real estate market? We will only know in hindsight.

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This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of November 28, 2011. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws. Copyright © 2011 Dan Krell.