As the economy sputters and putts along, many economists continue to look for signs the housing market is climbing out of the chasm dug by the subprime mortgage meltdown. Given the sentiment from homebuilders, some may say the housing market is finally making progress on scaling the chasm's often-slippery walls.
On that front, the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index rose by two points (to 16) in May, reflecting greater confidence in the newly built residential housing market. The fact that the May index continued to tick up from Aprilís five-point increase provides confirming evidence that the improved confidence level was no fluke.
Despite growing optimism in the new-home market, many economists remain less sanguine on the prospect of an overall housing-market recovery, given that the number of new housing starts declined 12.8% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 458,000 units, the lowest pace on records dating back 50 years. But it is worth noting that much of the decline was concentrated in apartment construction, which tumbled 46.1%. On a brighter note, single-family home construction actually climbed 2.8%.
Mortgage-market trends, on the other hand, offer a promising, tangible sign that a sustained recovery is possible. The Mortgage Bankers Associationís index of purchase applications, though falling slightly last week, continues along a higher long-term trend, thanks to investors and home buyers taking advantage of lower home prices and stable, historically low mortgage rates. On the latter, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage remains near record lows reached at the end of March.Not to repeat ourselves on one theme too often, but mortgage rates are unlikely to go significantly lower. Many of the government's recent economic stimulus initiatives have increased the odds of more inflation down the road. And that's not just us talking: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia President Charles Plosser said prices may rise 2.5% in 2011, a rate well above central bankersí preferred range, and cautioned against complacency on inflation Ė another reason we remain convinced that there is no time better than the present for getting a mortgage or for buying a home.