The Great Recession has receded in the rearview mirror, and pretty much every American would like to keep it that way, thank you very much. But we’re still all too aware that the whole financial disaster was precipitated by a deluge of bad mortgages. Sure, we’ve had nearly a decade of booming home sales and prices. But now that they’re slowing their roll, the whispers are starting to mount: Is another recession around the corner?
About 39% of Americans think the economy is slowing down, while 17% think we’re already in a recession or depression, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Yes, we might see a recession soon, economists say—but there’s no need to panic. That’s because the financial factors that helped cause last decade’s crash don’t exist this time around.
“We’re just scared because of what happened last time. And that’s not what’s going to happen [again],” says Lisa Sturtevant, a housing consultant and chief economist at Virginia Realtors, the state’s real estate association.
If there is another recession, she says, “most people are not going to lose their house. Most people are not going to lose their jobs.”
That’s a relief to hear—but then again, few experts predicted the last housing bust.
If a downturn does hit, probably toward the end of this year or the beginning of next year, most economists believe it will be brief and not nearly as painful as the last one. They anticipate that unemployment, currently at an extremely low 4%, will tick up slightly and there will be fewer new jobs created. But they don’t envision widespread layoffs resulting in scores of foreclosures and plunging home prices, as we saw in 2008–09.
“We’re at a record-low level of unemployment. The economy can’t stay here,” says Chief Economist Danielle Hale. She forecasts a recession beginning within the next two years. “This one will be mild.”
Why it looks like we’re due for a recession
Although a recession can be precipitated by a housing bust, trade war, or global event, this time the U.S. economy may simply become a victim of its own success.
With national unemployment so low, employers have to compete hard for talent by offering higher wages. Those increased costs are often passed onto consumers. This in turn causes inflation as goods and services become more expensive. If inflation rises much higher than wages, then the country has a problem.
Enter the U.S. Federal Reserve. It battles inflation by notching up interest rates. The downside is that makes it more expensive for businesses to borrow money to expand or bring on more workers. And that can effectively slow down the economy.
It’s like someone blowing too much air into a balloon—eventually a little needs to be let out or it’ll pop. Similarly, the Fed needs to siphon off a little of the economy’s helium. It hiked rates four times last year, when the economy was hurtling along, but this year it may do it only once, if at all.
Actually, economic cycles in which the economy is growing and more jobs are being created historically don’t last more than a few years. The longest stretched from 1991 to 2001. This summer will mark the longest economic expansion in U.S. history from the trough of the crisis in June 2009.
So the good times eventually must come to an end.
This slowdown, coming on the heels of a wild run-up in home prices, may feel like déjà vu. But the main culprit behind the previous housing market bust was the torrent of subprime mortgages doled out to underqualified and often uninformed buyers. When those owners defaulted, it created a domino effect, ultimately affecting all corners of the nation’s economy.
After that, lending laws were considerably tightened across the board. Borrowers today must be in much better financial shape in order to snag a mortgage.
“Underwriting is a lot tighter, and the [loans] are a lot less risky,” says Joel Kan, who oversees economic and industry forecasting at the Mortgage Bankers Association. “Households are in a better position to absorb the shock than they were back then.”
Will a recession lower home prices?
Buyers on a budget shouldn’t pin their hopes on a recession to create a vast clearance sale of deeply discounted properties. Prices aren’t expected to plummet, although they may dip in more expensive markets. Overall, price appreciation will likely just continue to slow.
But if the Fed lowers interest rates again to counteract a poor economy, mortgage rates will likely go down, too. That will also make it cheaper to buy a house.
“If there is a recession, the people with stable jobs will see it [as] a second-chance opportunity to buy a home,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors®. Yun doesn’t anticipate a recession this year, or next. “Prices may [or may not] come down. But certainly buyers will be in a better negotiating position.”
And even in a shakier economy, overall demand for housing, which keeps prices up, isn’t going to evaporate. The huge millennial population is getting older, settling down, and having children—and searching for homes of their own. Those life factors are not likely to change, and they create a massive demand for housing. A decade ago, it was mostly Gen Xers at that stage, a smaller generation with less impact.
The places that are most likely to see prices sink are more expensive markets that have experienced years of steep price hikes. For example, Silicon Valley’s San Jose, CA, could see corrections, says Hale.
Markets with more housing than buyers, such as Miami, where new developments have been going up at a breakneck pace, may also soften, says Norm Miller, a real estate finance professor at University of San Diego.
The luxury market, which is the priciest 5% of homes in any area, will also probably be affected.
“There are just more expensive homes [than affordable ones] for sale, and so the luxury market is likely to be more vulnerable to price corrections in the event of a recession,” says Hale.
A recession could worsen the housing shortage
One of the signatures of the past recession was the overabundance of newly built homes. When the economy collapsed and the buyers disappeared, builders across the nation were forced out of business basically overnight. Abandoned construction sites were littered across the country. The industry still hasn’t caught up with the renewed demand, and another recession could worsen the situation.
Only about 875,00 single-family homes were built last year, according to the National Association of Home Builders. But the nation needed about 1.1 million to ameliorate the shortage. If another downturn hits, builders will likely construct even fewer homes, says Rob Dietz, chief economist of the NAHB.
That means when the country recovers, we could experience even greater housing shortages than we’ve seen over the past few years.
The pace of single-family home construction growth is already slowing down, from 9% in 2017 to about 3% in 2018. Dietz predicts it will be less than 2% in 2019.
Building is expected to remain strong in places with strong population growth, such as the Southeast, Texas, and the mountain states of Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and Utah. Folks need places to live, after all.
But the current higher mortgage rates make it harder for folks to buy homes. Meanwhile, inflation results in higher land, materials, and construction labor costs. That typically translates into fewer new homes going up.
“For builders, it means that demands will fall back in some markets and they will pull back,” says Dietz.
Renters won’t be spared by a recession
Cash-strapped tenants hoping for a rent break likely won’t get lucky even if the economy does start to slump. Rent price growth is likely to slow or even stall as fewer folks are going to be dropping big bucks on housing, says Greg Willett, chief economist at RealPage, a property management technology and analytics company focused primarily on rentals. But it’s not likely to fall.
The exception is the luxury market, where landlords will have the most trouble finding tenants.
“Luxury will feel the pain first,” says Willett.
There could be some longer-term consequences as well as fewer rental developments are typically built when the economy sputters, so when things are a bit rosier, there may be fewer units available to fill demand.
Depending on how long the recession lasts, some condo buildings that can’t find buyers may eventually go rental. That’s most likely in places with an oversupply of housing, such as Miami, Miller says.
“[The last] financial crisis was unique with an unprecedented number of foreclosures, home price declines, and a stunning drop in homebuilding,” says Dietz. “The question is whether we’re going to experience a soft landing, a bumpy landing, or a crash landing.”