In today’s engagement-driven world, there is a bad tendency of all content providers towards the sensational and short term. The media is famous for providing superficial analysis and focusing on sensational events that generate spectacular headlines but that don’t help people to better understand the world they live in. Unfortunately, the financial press is not exempt from these tendencies.
One area in which short-term thinking and sensationalist reporting can often be found is in an analysis of the housing market. Recently, a barrage of negative articles about the U.S. housing market were released from multiple respectable sources. These articles are almost universally flawed because they focus on short-term trends in a long-term market.
One problem with looking at month-over-month housing data is that trends can distort movements in some cases and obscure them in others. In particular, the level of variance, especially for metrics like existing home sales, is so high that truly large movements in these numbers need to occur before any conclusion can be drawn that the trends are significant.
Another issue that frequently mars analysis of real estate on the national level is using local data and then inappropriately extrapolating. The variations in real estate market conditions from even one city to the next within a single state are often large enough that combining those data sets produces garbled nonsense. Comparing home pricing trends from Baltimore and Malibu in the same dataset is putting garbage in. And you’re going to get garbage out as a result.
But, perhaps, the most serious issue with looking at month-to-month or even year-over-year metrics within the housing market is that housing cycles tend to be very long. A far more meaningful technique is to compare the current phase of the housing cycle to phases of past housing cycles. The random noise of month-to-month movements of a few percentage points simply doesn’t provide much, if any, information in a market that is driven by decade-long cycles.
However, having said all of that, there is legitimate cause for concern within the U.S. housing market. Many cities throughout the United States feature housing prices, including rents, that are at historically unaffordable levels. While the U.S. housing market may be nearing the end of a boom period, looking at short-term or poorly massaged data points is not likely to provide useful insight.