When Will the Slump End?

When most of us read news about the falling housing market, we have to suppress a groan or an expletive. But John Talbott greets the headlines with a grin—and the very strong urge to shout "I told you so!"

Talbott is a former Goldman Sachs banker and economic consultant. He's also the author of two books that more or less foretold the pain homeowners are now experiencing. "When I turn on the news, it's as if they're reading out of my books, but in real time," says Talbott, who in 2003 wrote "The Coming Crash in the Housing Market: 10 Things You Can Do Now to Protect Your Most Valuable Investment."

Talbott began writing that book, he told me last week, after hearing that a friend—a teacher in San Diego who earned $45,000 a year—had just refinanced his condominium and borrowed $255,000 against its rising value. From his days as a Wall Street financier, Talbott questioned whether someone with that income could handle such a large mortgage. His friend's experience led him to begin exploring how home prices had risen and lending practices had changed over the last few years.

The result of this digging was "The Coming Crash," a 185-page paperback filled with charts and graphs. In it Talbott argued that Americans had grown too fond of adjustable-rate mortgages and were drawing too much comfort from real-estate agents' assurances that nationally home prices haven't fallen year over year in at least five decades. He raised questions about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's role in home finance—and questioned why their financial statements weren't more transparent. Most of all, he concluded that homes were overvalued.

In retrospect, the book contained some real insights. But as Talbott promoted it during 2004 and 2005, home prices kept soaring higher, which led some people to treat him like Chicken Little. "I started to hear from people: 'Oh, you must have been wrong—the housing market is still up'," Talbott says. "I kind of got pissed off."

That's when he started to write his second book, "Sell Now!," which was published in early 2006, just as the first cracks in the housing market were becoming apparent. As the title suggests, this time Talbott was more vocal in urging homeowners to cash in their winnings. "You must act. You must sell," wrote Talbott, who's currently renting a home in Kentucky. Near the back of "Sell Now!" is a chart listing the metro areas Talbott believes are most likely to decline sharply. I read the chart with particular interest: my own home is located partway between Boston (no. 19, where Talbott believes home values are destined to fall 49 percent) and Worcester, Mass. (no. 26, with a predicted fall of 44 percent). If Talbott's predictions are accurate, my neighbors and I are in for a world of hurt.

Despite his negative outlook, Talbott is pleasant and easy to talk to. During our phone interview I tell him I'm surprised to find myself enjoying a conversation with a guy who's predicting that the value of my family's biggest asset will fall by almost half. He says many people—including TV hosts—react with hostility to his message. "I would go on these talk shows, and within four seconds I could almost tell the value of [the host's] house and the value of his mortgage just by his questions," Talbott says.

So what does he make of the way the housing bust is playing out so far? He cites data showing that, nationwide, average home prices have fallen by around 5 percent. But he believes the true drop in value is probably steeper, since the current statistics are based on houses that actually change hands and don't reflect the huge glut of homes languishing on the market. That bloated inventory reflects the fact that many people aren't yet willing to acknowledge the reality that their home is worth less than they're asking for it.

Talbott believes we're still near the beginning of a five-to-seven-year cycle in which home values will fall back to the levels of 1997, when banks and mortgage lenders began letting so many Americans take out so many kooky home loans, which were the primary fuel for the boom. He also expresses surprise that the continuing stream of bad news from the housing market hasn't taken more of a toll on the stock market. Over time, it will.

Recently a congressional subcommittee predicted that the subprime mortgage crisis will result in 2 million foreclosures over the next few years. Talbott wonders if people really understand the magnitude of the suffering that will cause. "When people talk about 2 or 3 million people losing their homes, that makes Hurricane Katrina look like small potatoes," he says. "[And] this is spread out over the whole country."

So far many of John Talbott's predictions have been spot-on. But as the housing bust continues, homeowners in my neighborhood and beyond have every reason to hope his prescience proves short-lived.