2024: Steady Economy, Static Real Estate Market
The overall economy is expected to fare well in 2024 according to experts from across the spectrum, but the dramatic drop seen in real estate sales, coupled with a virtually non-existent refinance market, will likely keep title orders depressed.
The macro-economic picture has certainly brightened in recent months as an anticipated recession failed to materialize in 2023. Now forecasters are increasingly calling for a “soft landing” in 2024. Goldman Sachs is especially optimistic, projecting U.S. GDP growth to hit 2.1% in 2024 compared to other economists who see growth in the 1-1.8% range for the year.
“It was fair to wonder last year whether labor market overheating and an at times unsettling high inflation mindset could be reversed painlessly,” said David Mericle, Goldman Sachs Research chief US economist, in a recent economic report. “But these problems now look largely solved, the conditions for inflation to return to target are in place, and the heaviest blows from monetary and fiscal tightening are well behind us.”
Joe Brusuelas, chief economist for RSM, a global network of independent assurance, tax and consulting firms, sees a slow first quarter for GDP, followed by an uptick to 1.8% in the second half of 2024 and accelerating into 2025.
“We expect that policy tailwinds from both the fiscal and monetary authorities will set the stage for strong productivity and growth in the years ahead as inflation eases back to a much more tolerable range,” Brusuelas said in his 2024 outlook report in the December edition of The Real Economy.
While all indications point to economic fundamentals being strong enough to keep the overall U.S. economy on stable ground in 2024, real estate sales are likely to remain stagnant due to low consumer confidence, high interest rates and lack of inventory. The refinance market will be in the same boat, as current mortgage holders will likely be unwilling to relinquish their low interest rates.
Viewed through a consumer lens, The Conference Board remains pessimistic, noting in its November forecast that the economy is likely to buckle early in the year, leading to a short and shallow recession.
“This outlook is associated with numerous factors, including elevated inflation, high interest rates, dissipating pandemic savings, rising consumer debt, and the resumption of mandatory student loan repayments,” they noted. “We forecast that real GDP will grow by 2.4% in 2023, and then fall to 0.8% in 2024.”
On the upside, consumer confidence was up 2.9% in November after three months of decline. The Conference Board Measure of CEO Confidence, however, fell to 46 in Q4 2023, down from 48 in the third quarter, as most business leaders are also anticipating a mild recession in early 2024.
Interest rates keep real estate in deep freeze
With interest rates hovering near 7% as we begin the New Year, prospective homebuyers will continue to face a double conundrum in 2024:
- High interest rates have put many listed properties in the unaffordable range; and
- Fewer homes are coming on the market as homeowners with low rates are staying put.
Some relief is on the horizon as homebuilders remain cautiously in the market to fill the supply gap. Many regions of the country are reporting strong new home sales, as homebuyers ready and willing to invest drift away from the paltry supply of existing homes to the new home market.
Freddie Mac statistics support this idea, with the GSE reporting that existing home sales were at their lowest level in 13 years in the month of September, but new home sales were showing remarkable resilience.
“New home sales have taken on increased importance for the housing market as the share of total home sales that are new increased to 16.1%, the highest share since 2005,” Freddie Mac reported. “The U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that new home sales in September 2023 were at an annualized rate of 759,000, up 12.3% from August and 33.9% from September 2022. Overall, the inventory of new homes for sale has decreased 5.4% from last year.”
One nugget of encouragement came following the December FOMC meeting when the Federal Reserve signaled the possibility of interest rate cuts in 2024. However, any cuts are likely to have only a marginal impact on home sales in 2024, as these cuts will come in small increments through the course of the year. Moreover, rate cuts are far from assured, as Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in his remarks in December that interest rate increases are unlikely, but not off the table.
“If the economy evolves as projected, the median participant projects that the appropriate level of the federal funds rate will be 4.6 percent at the end of 2024, 3.6% at the end of 2025, and 2.9% at the end of 2026, still above the median longer-term rate,” Powell said. “These projections are not a Committee decision or plan; if the economy does not evolve as projected, the path for policy will adjust as appropriate to foster our maximum employment and price stability goals.”
Navigating the market
Interest rates, while high, are not in uncharted territory and homebuyers in the past have learned how to navigate higher interest rates through a plethora of tactics.
Real estate agents and loan officers who are knowledgeable and consultative with their customers may find a way forward by assisting their prospective homebuyers with a range of options, such as:
- Moderating expectations towards more affordable homes
- Encouraging buyers to increase downpayments to lower their monthly payments
- Educating borrowers about alternative products such as adjustable-rate mortgages
- Negotiating seller concessions
- Working with homebuilders to moderate costs in new home construction
Of course, none of these approaches mitigates supply constraints. Luring home sellers who are locked into mortgages in the 3-4% range back into the market is going to continue to be a challenge until overall rates begin to moderate.
Keeping an eye on fundamentals
As we enter 2024, mortgage, real estate and title professionals will have their eyes on some additional key economic fundamentals − both nationally and locally − as they navigate the slow market.
Although the job market has slowed in recent months, the outlook remains strong for stable employment in 2024, with some anticipation of a modest increase in unemployment. Regional variations are likely to have some impact on the real estate outlook in specific markets.
According to Goldman Sachs, real disposable income is forecast to grow nearly 3% in 2024. Solid job growth, real wage growth and an increase in interest income could keep consumer spending strong. However, forecasters with the US Chamber of Commerce report that consumers are increasingly depleting their pandemic savings and increasing credit card debt to support a faster pace of spending.
High interest rates that are hampering the real estate market are also likely to weigh on business investment in 2024. However, if recessionary fears continue to abate, this may increasingly become a non-issue in 2024.
If interest rates begin to moderate in the latter part of 2024, real estate sales could improve. In fact, there’s evidence that Millennials who have delayed household formations and homeownership could, at some point, represent a source of pent−up market demand. However, the specter of even a mild recession coupled with diminished consumer savings so necessary for a downpayment, growing credit card debt, lack of affordable housing, and high interest rates could delay a real estate market comeback well into 2025, especially for first-time homebuyers.