You can't always predict the future by studying the past, but it's not a bad idea to know what's come before. With that in mind, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has put together a report
about previous boom-and-bust cycles in the states and metro areas that have been down this road.
The conclusion: It takes a while to get back to where prices were before they started falling, at least if you're accounting for inflation.
FHFA’s Metropolitan Statistical Area and Division (MSA) indexes suggest that the time from peak to trough tends to be about 3¾ years, whereas the median recovery period (from trough to prior peak) was 6⅔ years.
The agency offers words of caution about trying to apply this to the current situation, noting that differences between the price escalation this decade and previous ones could make for limited "applicability." Take a look at the warning, because it seems to me to imply that this downturn could well be worse:
The economic drivers of price increases during the boom period in the early 2000s differed from the drivers of prior market booms, and the magnitude of recent price increases has generally been larger. Also, ... most of the larger historical downturns were caused by sharp increases in unemployment rates and shocks to personal income. Although the U.S. economy has experienced such conditions in the last year, those factors were not among the precipitants of the latest downturn, which began in 2006, well before the financial crisis erupted in the third quarter of 2007 and the recession began in the fourth quarter of 2007.
So what were some of the previous boom-busts? Texas offers one example. It benefited richly from the 1970s oil crises. But when oil prices fell, so did Texas employment -- and Texas home prices. And this was no 10-year recovery, either:
Prices peaked in the first quarter of 1982 and then declined steadily. Prices bottomed out in the first quarter of 1997 after losing 33 percent of their value. Texas’ real estate prices have yet to fully recover and now are roughly 15 percent below their prior peak.
You read that right: Twenty-seven years after its housing downturn started, Texas prices are lower -- in today's dollars -- than they were in 1982. I'm guessing that helps explain why the state isn't (as of yet) seeing a dramatic decrease in prices in this national downturn.
A postscript about inflation:
The report -- "A Brief Examination of Previous House Price Declines" -- tries to account for the rising cost of living by adjusting prices for inflation. This acknowledges that a house worth $300,000 today is less valuable than a house worth $300,000 five years ago, since you can't buy as much food, gas, etc. with the $300k nowadays if you convert it into cash. It's good to know how prices have changed in today's dollars if you want to compare housing to other types of investments.
On the other hand, plenty of homeowners just want to know if they can sell their home for at least as much as they bought it for. And if they do sell, they generally plan to convert any extra cash into a down payment for another home.
That's partly why I'm conflicted about adjusting historical home prices to reflect today's dollars. Two other reasons: The Consumer Price Index includes the cost of housing, and not all economists think the CPI accurately measures the rising cost of things.
But this new report uses the CPI-minus-shelter, so it's not (cue sigh of relief) adjusting home prices with a measure that includes home prices.