Falling House Prices and Softening Labor Market Unlikely to Trigger Wave of Foreclosures, According to First American Real House Price Index
A softening labor market combined with declining house prices may ultimately increase foreclosures, but the increase is more likely to be a trickle than a tsunami, says Chief Economist Mark Fleming
April 21, 2023, Santa Ana, Calif.
First American Financial Corporation (NYSE: FAF), a premier provider of title, settlement and risk solutions for real estate transactions and the leader in the digital transformation of its industry, today released the February 2023 First American Real House Price Index (RHPI). The RHPI measures the price changes of single-family properties throughout the U.S. adjusted for the impact of income and interest rate changes on consumer house-buying power over time at national, state and metropolitan area levels. Because the RHPI adjusts for house-buying power, it also serves as a measure of housing affordability.
Chief Economist Analysis: Affordability Improves for Fourth Consecutive Month
“Affordability has now improved for four straight months, yet remains down 32 percent since February 2022, according to the RHPI. Recently falling mortgage rates have overpowered the affordability-dampening effects of higher nominal house prices,” said Mark Fleming, chief economist at First American. “Nominal house price appreciation has slowed dramatically in response to affordability-constrained lower demand. After peaking in March 2022 at 21 percent nationally, annual nominal house price growth has since decelerated by 18 percentage points to 3.1 percent in February.
“Real estate is local, and house prices are down from their peaks in 37 of the top 50 markets. With house prices declining, some are concerned about the rising risk of a wave of foreclosures,” said Fleming. “Yet, foreclosures are the result of two triggers: economic hardship and lack of equity.”
The Dual Triggers Necessary for Foreclosure
“Foreclosure is a two-step process. First, the homeowner suffers an adverse economic shock, such as a loss of income, serious illness, or the death of a spouse, leading to the homeowner becoming delinquent on their mortgage,” said Fleming. “However, not every delinquency turns into a foreclosure. With enough equity, a homeowner has the option of selling the home.
“The reverse is also true. If the homeowner has little equity in their home, but suffers no financial setback that leads to delinquency, there is no need for a foreclosure,” said Fleming. “This is what we call the 'dual-trigger hypothesis.' Economic hardship or a lack of equity are alone insufficient to trigger a foreclosure. Only when both conditions exist does foreclosure become a likely outcome.”
Equity Levels Remain High
“While nominal house prices are declining across many of the top 50 markets, there is one trend that bodes well for homeowners in all markets – much of the equity gained during the pandemic remains. For example, San Jose, Calif. has experienced the most severe price declines from the peak, yet house prices remain 14 percent above their pre-pandemic level,” said Fleming. “As the housing market rebalances, price declines will continue across many markets, but those declines would have to be substantial to erase all of the equity gains accumulated by homeowners during the pandemic boom. Additionally, inventory remains historically low in many top markets, putting a floor on how low house prices can fall. The risk of the equity trigger for foreclosure is low.”
Unemployment Still Below Pre-Pandemic Averages
“While low compared with pre-pandemic levels, rising economic distress and the end of the foreclosure moratorium in 2021 have caused economic hardship for some, especially those homeowners directly impacted by the pandemic,” said Fleming. “Foreclosures have increased from near zero, but remain well below pre-pandemic levels. Nonetheless, unemployment rates across the top 50 markets remain low.
“Las Vegas had the highest unemployment rate (6.0 percent) in February 2023, but still has a lower unemployment rate than its pre-pandemic historic average. Additionally, even as the Las Vegas unemployment rate sits above other top markets, house prices in Las Vegas are up 36 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels,” said Fleming. “All 49 other top markets had an unemployment rate below 5 percent, which is lower than the pre-pandemic national historical average of 5.8 percent. So far, layoffs have not been broad based, and the protection that equity provides to those that have experienced economic hardship has helped to keep foreclosures from rising faster.”
Foreclosure Tsunami or Just a Trickle?
“Economic distress and a lack of equity are the two triggers of a foreclosure. Alone, each trigger is necessary, but not sufficient to trigger a foreclosure. The equity acquired since the start of the pandemic can provide an important buffer for distressed homeowners. Additionally, while the labor market is showing some early signs of slowing and economic distress is increasing, unemployment rates remain low across the top 50 markets,” said Fleming. “A softening labor market combined with declining house prices may ultimately increase foreclosures, but the increase is more likely to be a trickle than a tsunami.”
February 2023 Real House Price Index Highlights
- Real house prices decreased 0.2 percent between January 2023 and February 2023.
- Real house prices increased 31.6 percent between February 2022 and February 2023.
- Consumer house-buying power, how much one can buy based on changes in income and interest rates, increased 0.5 percent between January 2023 and February 2023, and decreased 21.7 percent year over year.
- Median household income has increased 4.1 percent since January 2022 and 80.8 percent since January 2000.
- Real house prices are 33.3 percent more expensive than in January 2000.
- Unadjusted house prices are now 50 percent above the housing boom peak in 2006, while real, house-buying power-adjusted house prices are 6.5 percent below their 2006 housing boom peak.
February 2023 Real House Price State Highlights
- The five states with the greatest year-over-year increase in the RHPI are: Maryland (+41.3 percent), Nebraska (+40.0 percent), Alabama (+39.7 percent), Iowa (+39.6 percent), and Florida (+39.5 percent).
- There were no states with a year-over-year decrease in the RHPI.
February 2023 Real House Price Local Market Highlights
- Among the Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) tracked by First American, the five markets with the greatest year-over-year increase in the RHPI are: Miami (+50.0 percent), Indianapolis (+45.3 percent), Jacksonville, Fla. (+42.5 percent), Baltimore (+40.1 percent), and Louisville, Ky. (+40.1 percent).
- Among the Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) tracked by First American, there were no markets with a year-over-year decrease in the RHPI.
The next release of the First American Real House Price Index will take place the week of May 29, 2023 for March 2023 data.
The methodology statement for the First American Real House Price Index is available at http://www.firstam.com/economics/real-house-price-index.
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. © 2023 by First American. Information from this page may be used with proper attribution.
About First American
First American Financial Corporation (NYSE: FAF) is a premier provider of title, settlement and risk solutions for real estate transactions. With its combination of financial strength and stability built over more than 130 years, innovative proprietary technologies, and unmatched data assets, the company is leading the digital transformation of its industry. First American also provides data products to the title industry and other third parties; valuation products and services; mortgage subservicing; home warranty products; banking, trust and wealth management services; and other related products and services. With total revenue of $7.6 billion in 2022, the company offers its products and services directly and through its agents throughout the United States and abroad. In 2023, First American was named one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For by Great Place to Work® and Fortune Magazine for the eighth consecutive year. More information about the company can be found at www.firstam.com.