Real estate consultant John Burns was out Tuesday afternoon with a warning to home-building CEOs, investors and public officials: Don't believe the numbers that seem to be showing stabilization in home prices. The reason: Data in recent months have been skewed by sales of low-end homes in downscale neighborhoods due to subprime defaults, while current sales are occurring in more traditional neighborhoods. That makes it look like prices are going up.
"We are extremely concerned that policy makers, banking and real estate industry executives, investors and others will use misleading home price data to conclude that home prices have stabilized," Burns wrote in an email research alert. "They have not."
Burns notes that the Case-Shiller and Zillow.com tiered price indices do show the discrepancy, but that data is behind the overall index report and is not routinely reported in news articles. He believes that data in coming reports could be misinterpreted.
"What is really happening is that people are now comparing the price on a 3-bedroom home in a typical neighborhood to the price on a 3-bedroom home in a poor neighborhood, because that's what was selling several months ago,"Burns wrote.
"The low-end price correction has slowed, but the high-end price correction is accelerating," Burns continued. "If the high end grabs a large percentage of the transactions, the indices could over-report the price correction because of double counting this phenomenon."
A growing number of economists expect price declines in the higher-end segments of the market to accelerate due to resets on option ARMs, job losses in the financial and white-collar corporate sectors and the still-declining U.S. economy. Burns believes these declines could be masked by the artificially low median price that has been set by foreclosure and short sales of low-end houses.