As home values rise, more Americans fear a housing bubble, survey finds

Call it déjà vu: Flipping houses is back in vogue, interest rates are low, and property values are appreciating faster than they have in years.

Sound familiar? If today’s real estate market is giving you flashbacks to last decade’s housing bubble, it turns out that you’re not alone.

According to a national survey released in August, Americans have grown increasingly concerned about the state of today’s housing market: Fifty-eight percent of the nearly 1,100 people surveyed in July say they expect there will be a “housing bubble and a price correction” in the next two years — a 12 percentage point increase since April.

Already, the survey found, such unease has produced a pool of buyers who are more wary about purchasing a home than they once were. Sixty-three percent of all home buyers and 72 percent of millennials say they worry about timing the market accurately and want to ensure that they are not “buying high.”  Even more, four out of every five homeowners nationwide reported they think now is a good time to sell.

At first glance, the results of the survey, conducted by Dallas-based ValueInsured, a down-payment insurance company, seem disturbing: People are afraid of what the market will do, and that’s already at a time when  homeownership fell last year  to a 50-year low.  That translates into their not buying as many houses.

Can you blame them?

While nearly 10 years out from the burst of the bubble, many Americans are still recovering — financially and emotionally — from the worst economic downturn since the Great Recession. Approaching home-buying with a little skepticism, I’d argue, isn’t such a bad thing.

“What this is telling us about today’s home buyer is that they are much smarter and much savvier … they don’t want to get caught up in a similar situation as they were in 2007,” said Joe Melendez, CEO of ValueInsured, in an interview.

Should we actually be worried about the potential for a housing market correction?

It’s important to note that price-appreciation fears are likely not happening uniformly across all markets. ValueInsured’s survey found that, in particular, residents in urban markets are more worried about the potential for a bubble. Sixty-five percent of urban homeowners and buyers said housing is overvalued and prices are unsustainable.

The unevenness of the housing recovery has been evident in the Philadelphia region: Home values across the city are, on average, 17 percent higher than they were when they last peaked in 2007. Meanwhile, average home values in every surrounding suburban county remain below their peak.

If a price correction were to happen, these numbers indicate it would most likely happen in the city. But whether there will be a correction depends on who you ask.

Many real estate agents and developers in the area say what’s happening in Philadelphia is just the result of economic prosperity that’s been long overdue. It isn’t a bubble, they say, but basic supply and demand: More people want to buy houses right now than those who want to sell. As a result, the rapid price increases in the city are a result of a lack of inventory as buyers attempt to outbid each other.

Besides, many add, we are not seeing the same pervasiveness of subprime mortgage lending — one of the causes of the bubble — that we saw 10 years ago. And new research from JPMorgan last month showed that sharp price corrections are relatively uncommon, even following large price increases.

Still, Melendez said, “corrections are inevitable in all markets.” And, many others have pointed out, a “correction” doesn’t necessarily mean there will be the massive burst of a bubble: Instead, we could see a balancing of the market, resulting in more supply and a slight dampening of prices.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paying close attention. Loosening of tight standards imposed after the recession has increasingly been happening in the mortgage industry in the last few years, with government-controlled mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, now allowing loans with as little as 3 percent down — a stray from the preferred 20 percent. National banks have been jumping in, too, partnering with the giants to offer the loans.

Does that mean we’ll immediately see the same problems we did 10 years ago? Not at all. But, critics have offered, loosening of standards can be a slippery slope.