Surviving the Housing Slump

The National Association of Realtors has just launched a new ad campaign touting why buying a house "is a decision you shouldn't postpone any longer" and reminding buyers that "the value of a home nearly doubles every 10 years." But real-estate agents' forecasts have a history of being ridiculously optimistic. At the other extreme, housing bears like John Talbott say homeowners' current woes have only just begun. Here's his advice for would-be buyers and sellers right now:

What was your house worth in 1997?
When John Talbott figures how far prices have to fall, he figures they'll return to 1997 levels, since that was the year in which many of the aggressive lending practices—like interest-only mortgages—really began to take off.

Take a hard look at your mortgage.
"There are very few good deals left in the world for consumers, and fixed-rate, 30-year housing debt is one of them," Talbott says, particularly if homeowners set aside money to pay it off faster than the lender requires.

Follow the bailout talk.
Talbott says most people with adjustable-rate mortgages would be better off with a fixed-rate mortgage, but that makes two assumptions: that they can afford the larger payment on a fixed-rate loan, and they believe the government isn't going to offer some sort of bailout plan for borrowers who've gotten in over their heads with mortgage debt. People in mortgage trouble who are thinking about refinancing would be wise to watch headlines about bailout proposals, he says.

Think about home renovations as an expense, not an investment.
During the boom many homeowners came to believe the money they spent on a new kitchen or bath constituted savings, since improvements would only add fuel to their home's soaring value. The bust should help people understand that every dollar homeowners spend on a renovation rarely pays back $1 when they sell the house, Talbott says. Renovations are mostly about comfort and status, not about improving home values, he says.

It may still pay to sell now instead of later.
With home values down, some people may be inclined to hold off listing a home in the hope of a quick recovery. But if Talbott is correct, home prices have only begun to fall, and someone who can sell his home for 5 or 10 percent less than what he thought it was worth during the boom would do very well.