How this week’s Fed meeting could impact inventory

As we started 2024, the signals in the U.S. real estate market were for inventory growth, sales growth and home-price growth across the U.S. At the time, I observed that even if mortgage rates stayed flat, the momentum seemed to be in the cards for broad, slow growth in the market. 

However, mortgage rates didn’t stay flat. They climbed starting Jan. 1 and as of today, March 18, mortgage rates are 30-40 basis points higher than Jan. 1. Rates are off their recent peak of a couple weeks ago, but the latest economic news is still very strong, and the markets are growing less sanguine about interest rates easing significantly soon. Last year, the most common view was that mortgage rates would fall in 2024. That hasn’t materialized yet and many people are less optimistic that it will. 

We’ll learn more about the future of interest rates at the Federal Reserve meeting this week. Although I don’t have any capacity to predict interest rates, I do know what happens to the housing market if rates rise or fall from here.

Of my initial expectations this year — rising inventory, rising sales rates, rising prices  — only rising inventory remains clear at this moment as we finish Q1 with rising interest rates. I talk frequently about how rising rates creates rising inventory. That’s true again this week in the data. My other two expectations, slowly rising sales volume, and slowly rising prices, are less compelling. Let’s look at the data. 

Housing inventory

Looking at last week’s numbers:

  • There are 507,000 single-family homes on the market in the U.S.
  • That’s 1.3% more than a week prior, 22% more than a year ago, and 105% more than two years ago.
  • This week in 2022 was the last of the 3% mortgages. Inventory and rates rose in lockstep starting then.
  • There are 250,000 more homes on the market now then when we exited the pandemic boom in March 2022. 

At this moment in 2022, interest rates and inventory had started rising quickly together as the pandemic boom ended. Mortgage rates were still in the 3s in early March 2022. By April they were in the 4s and by May they were in the 5s.

As mortgage rates rise, so do the number of unsold homes: Demand slows, inventory grows. As the economy remains surprisingly strong, mortgage rates are staying higher for longer than people predicted and as long as rates stay high, inventory will keep growing.

While inventory is growing across the country, some markets are way more impacted and already have more homes on the market than in 2019 or 2020 just before the pandemic. Nearly all markets are showing inventory growth over last year now and this is expanding every week. 

The takeaway? If mortgage rates continue to rise to 7.5% or all the way to 8% again, we will see a pretty dramatic increase in unsold inventory. But if rates finally fall, let’s say to 6.5% or lower, we’ll see consumers act very quickly and this inventory growth will reverse. Lower rates mean more buyer competition and less unsold inventory. 

New listings

Last week, 59,000 new single-family listings came to market. New listings volume continues to run ahead of last year and we see more sellers than last year. In fact, last week, after including the 16,000 immediate sales, there were 24% more new listings than the same week a year ago.

Last year was probably a record low for mid-March as we had very few sellers. For the rest of 2024 we should expect to have more sellers than a year ago, which is a very good thing. It was not that long ago that we had 70,000 or 80,000 new listings each week in March. We’re at 59,000 right now so the seller volume is climbing, but it’s still a third fewer than in recent years. So nationally there isn’t any sign of supply and demand getting out of balance.

Home prices

Demand is slow as mortgage rates continue to stay in the 7s. Supply is gradually increasing and demand is generally soft. As a result, some of the leading indicators for future home sales prices are starting to weaken.

One obvious place to watch this pricing transition is in the percent of homes on the market with price reductions. This week, 30.9% of the homes on the market have taken a price cut. That’s up half a percent this week and is now more than a year ago. 

It’s totally normal to have around a third of homes on the market take a price reduction from the original list price before they sell. I’m going to watch the slope of this curve as this chart will show exactly how quickly the market reacts to higher mortgage rates. This is a pivotal time for measuring buyer demand. 

A longer-term signal is the asking prices of all the homes on the market. The median price of single-family homes in the U.S. right now is $435,000. That’s up a notch from a week earlier and just 1.2% higher than a year ago.

Again, in January I expected this price data to be accelerating a little more quickly than it has. Home prices peak each year in June before receding a bit in the second half of the year. The question now is: will we surpass that all-time high this year or will it get delayed until 2025?

The median price of the new listings inched down to $419,900 last week and the new listings cohort is priced 5% higher than a year ago. The new listings are an excellent leading indicator for future home sales prices. The sellers and listing agents use all their collective wisdom and in aggregate they know exactly where to price the new listing. What this data tells us right now is that across the U.S. we have just narrowly increasing home prices this year so far. The signals are slightly weaker now than the data at the start of the year led me to expect. 

Pending sales

This week saw 66,000 new contracts for single-family homes started. That’s 15% more than the same week a year ago. Since mortgage rates have been on the rise this year, the sales have been just barely above last year, so this week was probably a bit of an anomaly, but it is welcome nonetheless.

When we look at the price of the homes in contract but not yet sold — these are the pendings — we see that home sales prices are coming in about 4% higher than a year ago. The median price of all the homes in contract right now is $389,000. Home prices ended 2023 at 5-6% gains over the previous year, so home-price appreciation is compressing as mortgage rates have risen. 

If rates stay steady around 7%, I don’t expect much price correction lower. If mortgage rates jump from here, I expect that we’ll see a step down in home prices like we saw in October of 2022.

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