Housing Market Potential Expected to Build on Momentum in 2021, According to First American Potential Home Sales Model

Twin housing market accelerants, record low mortgage rates and the demographic boost from millennials aging into their prime homebuying years, super-charged demand, says Chief Economist Mark Fleming

January 22, 2021, Santa Ana, Calif.

First American Financial Corporation (NYSE: FAF), a leading global provider of title insurance, settlement services and risk solutions for real estate transactions, today released First American’s proprietary Potential Home Sales Model for the month of December 2020. 

December 2020 Potential Home Sales

  • Potential existing-home sales increased to a 6.18 million seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR), a 2.3 percent month-over-month increase.
  • This represents a 77.1 percent increase from the market potential low point reached in February 1993.
  • The market potential for existing-home sales increased 11.9 percent compared with a year ago, a gain of nearly 658,628 (SAAR) sales.
  • Currently, potential existing-home sales is 683,971 million (SAAR), or 10.0 percent below the pre-recession peak of market potential, which occurred in April 2006. 

Market Performance Gap

  • The market for existing-home sales outperformed its potential by 1.2 percent or an estimated 73,142 (SAAR) sales.
  • The market performance gap increased by an estimated 21,960 (SAAR) sales between November 2020 and December 2020.

Chief Economist Analysis: Housing Market Potential Reached Highest Point Since 2007

“In the final month of 2020, the market potential for existing-home sales reached its highest point since 2007, rising to a 6.18 million seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of sales,” said Mark Fleming, chief economist at First American. “While the winter months are traditionally real estate’s slow season, the housing market had one more surprise for us in 2020, as our measure of the market potential for existing-home sales showed the housing market again broke with traditional seasonal patterns during this unprecedented year.

“Twin housing market accelerants -- record low mortgage rates and the demographic boost from millennials, the largest generation in U.S. history, aging into their prime homebuying years – super-charged demand. Yet, the housing market also faces a historic and worsening inventory impasse - you can’t buy what’s not for sale,” said Fleming. “In 2020, the growth in house-buying power fueled by low mortgage rates was the primary driver of housing market potential, while existing homeowners choosing not to list their homes for sale was the biggest headwind. Fortunately, the potential sales increase from house-buying power was more than the loss from rising tenure length in 2020.” 

House-Buying Power, Millennials Super-Charge Housing Market Demand

“House-buying power, how much home one can afford to buy given their income and the prevailing mortgage rate, is a key driver of home-buying demand. The primary reason for the increase in house-buying power in 2020 was falling mortgage rates. Since December 2019, the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage fell by slightly more than one percentage point. Holding household income constant at its December 2019 level, that means potential home buyers gained nearly $60,000 in house-buying power from falling mortgage rates alone,” said Fleming. “If you factor in the growth in household income, home buyers gained approximately $87,000 of total house-buying power in 2020. Because an increase in house-buying power allows a potential home buyer to purchase more home for the same monthly payment or purchase the same amount of home for a lower monthly payment, increased house-buying power helped super-charge housing market potential. Compared with one year ago, falling mortgage rates and rising incomes for those still employed resulted in nearly 389,000 potential home sales in December.” 

Rising Tenure Squeezes Housing Market Supply

“Existing-home sales make up approximately 90 percent of all sales, so the rising tenure length of existing homeowners means fewer and fewer homes for sale and is the primary reason for the lack of housing supply. As existing homeowners have increasingly chosen not to list their homes for sale during the pandemic, average tenure length – the amount of time someone lives in their home – has soared to a historic high of approximately 10.5 years, up from an average of 10 years just one year ago,” said Fleming. “In last month’s existing-home sales report, months’ supply hit a historic low of 2.3 months. That means it would take just over two months to run out of homes for sale at the current pace of sales. The lack of homes for sale caused by the increase in tenure length reduced the potential for existing-home sales by 170,200 in December compared with a year ago.

“What should we expect in 2021? More of the same, but in a more positive economic environment. The successful dissemination of a vaccine should put an end to the ‘stop-start’ pattern of restrictions imposed on businesses, which should help the economy recover. Low mortgage rates will continue to support strong house-buying power as more and more millennials age into homeownership, keeping demand robust,” said Fleming. “While the supply-demand imbalance will persist, existing homeowners who were hesitant to sell amidst the worst of the pandemic may be encouraged to bring their homes to market, relieving some of the supply shortage. Swelling demand and the potential for greater supply means housing market potential in 2021 is likely to remain strong and build off a historic 2020.” 

Next Release

The next Potential Home Sales Model will be released on February 18, 2021 with January 2021 data. 

About the Potential Home Sales Model

Potential home sales measures existing-homes sales, which include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops on a seasonally adjusted annualized rate based on the historical relationship between existing-home sales and U.S. population demographic data, homeowner tenure, house-buying power in the U.S. economy, price trends in the U.S. housing market, and conditions in the financial market. When the actual level of existing-home sales are significantly above potential home sales, the pace of turnover is not supported by market fundamentals and there is an increased likelihood of a market correction. Conversely, seasonally adjusted, annualized rates of actual existing-home sales below the level of potential existing-home sales indicate market turnover is underperforming the rate fundamentally supported by the current conditions. Actual seasonally adjusted annualized existing-home sales may exceed or fall short of the potential rate of sales for a variety of reasons, including non-traditional market conditions, policy constraints and market participant behavior. Recent potential home sale estimates are subject to revision to reflect the most up-to-date information available on the economy, housing market and financial conditions. The Potential Home Sales model is published prior to the National Association of Realtors’ Existing-Home Sales report each month. 


Opinions, estimates, forecasts and other views contained in this page are those of First American’s Chief Economist, do not necessarily represent the views of First American or its management, should not be construed as indicating First American’s business prospects or expected results, and are subject to change without notice. Although the First American Economics team attempts to provide reliable, useful information, it does not guarantee that the information is accurate, current or suitable for any particular purpose. © 2021 by First American. Information from this page may be used with proper attribution. 

About First American

First American Financial Corporation (NYSE: FAF) is a leading provider of title insurance, settlement services and risk solutions for real estate transactions that traces its heritage back to 1889. First American also provides title plant management services; title and other real property records and images; valuation products and services; home warranty products; property and casualty insurance; banking, trust and wealth management services; and other related products and services. With total revenue of $6.2 billion in 2019, the company offers its products and services directly and through its agents throughout the United States and abroad. In 2020, First American was named to the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® list for the fifth consecutive year. More information about the company can be found at www.firstam.com.