How to Fix the Housing Market

Washington says it wants to help homeowners, but so far it hasn't. Here's what might actually work

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Vincent Laforet

Las Vegas has borne the brunt of the housing crash, with plummeting home values and a spike in foreclosures.

Here's a thought: let's have the government do something to fix the housing market. Now what would that be?

Ideas are flying around Washington. They include tax credits and cheaper mortgages for home buyers as well as leaning on lenders to rewrite mortgage terms for struggling borrowers. But maybe we should ask what, exactly, fixing the housing market means--and prepare ourselves for the limits of what these policies can actually accomplish.

Consider our recent track record. Last July, Congress passed a bill to help the housing market. In an effort to churn demand and stabilize home prices, the bill created a $7,500 tax break for first-time home buyers. It also created a program to prevent foreclosures. Unfortunately, no major lenders signed up. Bottom line: only 25 loans have been rewritten.

Influencing a $19 trillion market that is coming off one of history's great asset bubbles is a lot harder than it looks. In December, houses sold for 15% less than they did a year earlier. No act of Congress could change that. Says Wellesley College economist Karl Case: "Let's not delude ourselves into thinking we're driving a speedboat when we're driving a tanker."

So, what does have a shot at working? Most proposals on the table are designed to boost demand without distorting the market and at the same time restrain supply by keeping people in their homes. But the harsh reality is that fixing the crisis will require some acknowledgment that there are a number of people out there who shouldn't be homeowners. Here's a guide to the latest ideas about what to do:

Stimulate but Don't Manipulate

The core issue is that there aren't enough people buying houses. Usually, when price goes down, demand rises, but in the housing market, falling values make potential buyers fearful, sending them to the sidelines as they wait to see how much cheaper homes will get. If we could restore buyers to the market, the thinking goes, prices would stabilize, delinquent borrowers could sell instead of falling into foreclosure, and the value of the mortgage-related securities contaminating our financial system would stop being such a mystery.

Ideas aimed at kick-starting this process include giving everyone who buys a house a tax credit worth 10% of the purchase price and driving down mortgage rates--perhaps to as low as 4%. They're an effort to push fence sitters off their perch and give a head start to folks who are finding that tighter lending standards mean they can't borrow as much as they might once have.

Such programs are great news for real estate agents and builders. But it's not clear how much these ideas would help housing overall. Nearly one-fifth of all borrowers owe more than their house is worth. They couldn't sell their home and pay off their loan even if they wanted to, and that's not a problem that goes away by simply slowing the pace of the fall.

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