by Luke Mullins

The real estate market has yet to rebound from its historic crash -- here's why

Four years after the housing bubble popped, the American real estate market has yet to launch a sustainable recovery. Although U.S. home prices have improved modestly since the spring of 2009--and certain regional markets have performed even better--sales and values will face renewed downward pressure later this year in the wake of the expiration of the federal home buyer tax credit. Indeed, some analysts expect the bloated inventory and sputtering demand to trigger a "double dip" housing recession, with prices possibly even slipping back below their April 2009 lows.

This disconcerting outlook has materialized despite some optimistic developments within the market. The 30-percent drop in prices has helped restore affordability to a once wildly-overvalued market, putting additional consumers in position to become homeowners. Meanwhile, mortgage financing has grown downright cheap--with rates falling to 50-year lows. "So what's the problem then?" asks Timothy Dwyer, the chief executive officer of Entitle Direct. "What's causing this stagnation in the housing recovery?" Here are six reasons why the housing market hasn't recovered:

1. Labor market:

The labor market holds the key to a recovery in housing. "We need more job growth in this country for a housing recovery to take hold," Dwyer says. That's because a steady income stream is the first step to home ownership. And with the national unemployment rate sitting at an uncomfortably high 9.5 percent, a great deal of potential buyers are either out of work or worried about losing their jobs. And until jobs and confidence return, the market won't have enough demand to support a sustainable recovery, says Mike Larson of Weiss Research. "This is truly a jobless recovery to end all jobless recoveries," Larson says. "And that's why I think the housing market is still struggling."

2. Household formation:

The weak labor market is undercutting a housing recovery in another way as well. As jobs become scarce, unemployed workers tend to move in with friends or family members, says Patrick Newport, a US economist for IHS Global Insight. This development works to constrict the creation of new households, which typically serve as a key driver of real estate demand. Only 398,000 new households were formed between March of 2008 and March of 2009, compared to roughly 1.2 million in a normal year, according to Newport. "That was the second smallest increase since 1947," he says. Although figures for the most recent year have not yet been released, Newport expects they will show another period of sluggish household formation. "That is the key reason why the housing market is still down...and the reason that household formation is down is because the economy is so weak," Newport says. "Job growth is what will get people moving back out on their own." Newport expects the economy to add jobs going forward, but only at a modest pace. He forecasts roughly 800,000 additional jobs added this year, 2.7 million in 2011, and 3.5 million in 2012.

3. Foreclosures:

Despite a sharp pullback in new home construction, the housing market remains significantly oversupplied. The market had an 8.3-month supply of unsold existing homes in May; that's above the 6-month supply associated with a balanced market. At the same time, a mountain of distressed properties will ensure that additional inventory continues hitting the market in the form of foreclosures. Foreclosure filings were reported on nearly 1.7 million homes in the first six months of the year, an increase of eight percent over the same period a year earlier, according to RealtyTrac. "The midyear numbers put us on pace to exceed 3 million properties with foreclosure filings by the end of the year, and more than 1 million bank repossessions," James Saccacio, the chief executive officer of RealtyTrac, said in a statement. And with large numbers of Americans still struggling to pay their mortgage bills, even more foreclosures are on the way. Ten percent of all mortgage loans were delinquent at the end of the first quarter, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. It could take two years or longer for the market to work through this excess inventory, experts say. And it will be difficult for home prices to rise appreciably until balance is restored.

4. Tight credit:

Rates on 30-year fixed mortgages fell to 4.57 percent for the week ending July 15--that's the lowest level since the 1950s. Not everyone, however, will be able to take advantage of these attractive terms. That's because banks--who incurred huge losses on bad loans made during the housing boom--have increased their lending standards significantly. "If you don't have good credit it's going to be difficult [to get a mortgage]," says John Bancroft, the executive editor of Inside Mortgage Finance. "If you don't have money for a down payment and you are in a market that is still considered deteriorating, it's going to be difficult [to get a mortgage]." To get the best rates, today's borrowers will need a FICO score of 720 or higher, a down payment of around 10 percent, and fully documented income and assets, says Keith Gumbinger of Buyers that can't meet these requirements could still be eligible for government-backed loans through the Federal Housing Administration. Attractive rates are also available on larger, so-called Jumbo home loans, but the credit bar will be even higher. Today's Jumbo borrowers generally need a FICO score of at least 740 and should expect to put down anywhere from 20 to 40 percent, Gumbinger says.

5. Falling home prices:

With home prices having fallen so dramatically from their 2006 peaks, the real estate market's weakness has become an obstacle to recovery in and of itself. Although home prices have stabilized recently, they are expected to decline in coming months. Meanwhile, the years-long period of home price deflation has blinded many Americans to the potential benefits of buying a home, Gumbinger says. "The message which has been repeated over and over again in anything from 40-point headlines on down is: 'People are getting screwed by homeownership.'" As a result, many would-be home buyers are still scared off by concerns that their investment may lose value after they've gone to closing. "No one wants to catch the hot falling potato," Gumbinger says.

6. Selling your other home:

While today's housing market has created some serious deals, not all buyers are in position to take advantage of them. For example, any current homeowner interested changing addresses will first need to sell their home. And with roughly one in four homeowners in negative equity--meaning they owe more on the mortgage than their property is worth--that can be tricky. Homeowners with negative equity may take a loss on their investment if they sell their property. "That's something that [homeowners] don't do readily," says Brad Hunter, the chief economist at Metrostudy. As a result, the 11 million homeowners who have negative equity are less likely help advance a real estate recovery.

Outlook: When considering the trajectory of the real estate recovery, it's important to bear in mind the magnitude of the boom and bust, Larson says. "We had the biggest housing bubble the country has ever seen," Larson says. "The reality is that when you get these types of situations that carry so far to the upside, the recovery period takes quite some time." Newport expects median existing home prices to fall another 8 percent or so before bottoming out in the first quarter of next year. From there, he expects prices to begin a slow and fitful climb.

6 Reasons the Housing Market Hasn't Recovered