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Please Show Us Which End Is Up

In Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column last week Bubble Trouble? What to make of all the real estate trend news [SFGate] [1] she explores the vast outpouring of real estate information and its interpretation available to consumers.

Some economists — typically, those who have staked their professional reputations on being dark-horse skeptics — are predicting nothing short of a global economic apocalypse. Others — often those on the take from the real estate industry — scoff at such dire visions. Don’t listen to the doomsayers, they say, “we’re in for a soft landing.”

But what does all this news mean to the average home buyer and seller? Not much other than to signify that things have changed since last year, at least up to this point.

Across the country, it is generally been reported that, prices are flat or up, yet volume is down.

Yet we eagerly await more data. The Walk-through announced two days ago that OFHEO is releasing their quarterly stats [2] which is used by many government agencies and the numbers may be negative for the first time since its history, as speculated by the well-reguarded blog Calculated Risk [3] (who subsequently put strike-throughs in all references to depreciation).

Economists and market commentators eagerly await new material to discuss (self-included), but the usefulness of the OFHEO report is questionable in a changing market.

Today’s OFHEO report [4] release at 10am contains:

Not a lot of reliability here to feel comfortable about.

Carol correctly summizes about whether to buy or not:

I think the best answer is it that it all depends on what you’re buying or selling and how it’s priced.

Thats sounds like a completely caveated answer but its the only one that can be made and still have integrity. In other words, whats happening in San Diego, CA or Fargo, ND doesn’t necessarily (or likely) correlate with national housing statistics.

Are national statistics helpful? I think they are but only when used for general discussion. For me, its fun to see what goes into the process of collecting the information and the national ramifications. On a local level, the commentators need to connect the relevance, if any, to local conditions.

The analogy I can draw from are the local reports I prepare in New York [5]. My reports can’t be taken down to the baseline level for pricing a specific property. Thats what an appraisal is for. In other words, market reports provide the aggregate of all sales. All 2-bedroom condos in Manhattan are not identical, therefore, the 2-bedroom Manhattan condo stats I provided are merely a starting point and a general indicator of trends. Sub-markets of this 2-bedroom category can be broken up into many smaller segments such as building type, location, size, etc.

Yesterday, a few early comments were made to my weekly Three Cents Worth [6] post on the real estate blog Curbed were critical of my stats, saying they tell us nothing, that I can’t look at historical by going back in time, I can’t use a short term window because it doesn’t show a trend. Therefore this leaves me one remaining option, to chart the future. I haven’t figured that out yet.

In the Inman article Why housing forecasts are (almost) worthless [subscr] [7], writer Marcie Gefner draws this conclusion about predicting the future:

Forecasters, prognosticators, pundits, analysts and others of their ilk are able to predict the future — or so they would have real estate professionals and the home-buying and home-selling public believe. It’s bunk, of course.

I agree with her. The simple fact is that there are many people who do not seem to grow tired of the topic, and are looking to absorb as much information as possible, whether reliable or not, until the next hot topic come along.