As the economic recovery has sputtered along in recent years, those looking for signs of progress have focused intensely on two metrics: the unemployment rate and housing prices.
Much of the investor optimism about the economy is now being fueled by various measurements showing housing prices surging across the country. Just this week CoreLogic, one of several real estate data providers that tracks home prices around the country, reported that prices rose 12.1 percent in April compared to the period a year ago.
The Triangle market, while not experiencing double-digit growth, is also seeing solid appreciation, according to CoreLogic. Home prices, including distressed sales, increased 4.4 percent in the Raleigh-Cary market in April while Durham-Chapel Hill market increased 5.3 percent.
It can be tantalizing to view these numbers as having the finality of a companys stock price, with sellers assuming they will now be able to get X percent more for their home.
But, in the same way that a lower unemployment rate doesnt necessary mean an unemployed persons job prospects have improved, the reality is more complicated.
Capturing home prices is an inexact science. While we can be fairly certain that home prices are now rising in the Triangle as a whole, that doesnt mean all boats are being lifted.
CoreLogic uses a repeat-sales index that tracks increases and decreases in prices for the same homes over time, which it claims provides a more accurate view of pricing trends. But, given that the average Triangle homeowner owns their home for anywhere from four to six years, the price changes over a 12-month period may be based on a relatively small sample size.
The data set is always going to be limited and its always going be influenced by investors, said Stacey Anfindsen, a Cary appraiser who analyzes Multiple Listing Services data for area real estate agents
The investor effect
Many national housing market observers have begun to suspect that price increases in some markets are being fueled in part by investors that have been scooping up thousands of single-family homes and converting them to rentals.
The Triangle has historically attracted few of these type of investors, mainly because housing has been comparably quite affordable here.
The market correction has changed that somewhat, as the region has seen an uptick in buyers paying all cash in the past three years. Whereas cash buyers once accounted for between 5 and 10 percent of sales, they now represent about 20 percent of sales.
One large investor, American Homes 4 Rent of Malibu, Calif., has ben particularly active here. The company has acquired more than 400 houses in Wake and Durham counties since late December, according to property records.
While such a portfolio is large for the Triangle, its unlikely to be having an outsized effect on prices.
Theres no question that rising home prices in the Triangle and across the country are critical to the economic recovery. In the Triangle, sustained price increases like we are now experiencing will eventually help alleviate the lack of inventory by enabling more people to put their homes on the market.
But some of the eye-popping year-over-year increases being reported elsewhere should be viewed cautiously given that the overall economic picture has not improved dramatically during the same period.
The average hourly wages for all employees in the U.S. rose .9 percent in April compared to the same period a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If housing prices continue to rise at rates that are totally disconnected from wage growth, those gains could be fleeting.
There was no economic justification for the housing prices that you saw in 2006, Anfindsen said. If theres an economic justification to go back there then thats fine. But there isnt right now.