Many people are trying to figure out where the housing market is going. and how home values are going to be affected.  In a lot of the different assessments that have been made, comparisons have been to previous periods in an effort to determine trends.

I wanted to take a different approach. After looking at a few things, in my opinion, house prices need to come down about 33%, if not more. This number may vary from market to market.

For my analysis I turned to data provided by the US Census Bureau. I wanted to see how house prices related to household income.The reason for this is quite simple. The amount of house you can afford is closely tied to the amount you make. It is one of the most important factors lenders consider when qualifing borrowers for a loan. If you make X dollars a year, lenders have different formulas to determine they will lend you up to Y dollars for a home. This is a slight simplification as there are other factors involved such as your credit rating which impacts your interest rate which will affect how much you can borrow. But the underlying factor in your ability to repay is your income.

Before I go into the details let me show you the chart of the data I collected. Income and house prices are on the left y axis, and the price per barell of oil is on the right y axis.


The recommended house prices were determined by applying a very simple formula. Before the year 2000, the average house price to income ratio was around 3.0. This is inline with many recommendations that the amount of house you can afford is about 3 times your yearly income. Other factors are involved but this is a good rule of thumb to use as a starting point. So to come up with what the recommended home price should be for a given year, I multiplied the median incomes by 3.0.

Lets first look at the income data. It's been flat. Going up and down a little bit here and there but there have been no major swings. From 2000 to 2007 the median home price jumped  to 150% but incomes didn't jump up by that same amount. They didn't jump at all. In 2000, the median house price was in line with the recommended median house price I came up with. In 2006, the median home price is 150% of that recommended price.

How can people afford these home prices? Their income hasn't improved. Not everyone is winning the lottery or finding out some long lost rich uncle they never knew about has passed and they're they only beneficiary. Has demand increased considerably? Well, owning a home is the "American Dream" and there hasn't been a 50% increase in population.

So what happened? Demand for homes did increase because more people were able to purchase homes and supply is pretty fixed. There are only so many homes in a given area and only so much land to build on. How is it that so many more people were able to buy homes?

The conservative practices of lenders from 1981 through 2000 kept the house price to income ratio around 3.0 with very little deviation. Notice I didn't say that home buyers kept the ratio at this level. Someone may want to buy a $1,000,000 home to live in, but if they only make $20,0000 a year, they're not going to find any responsible entity to lend them the money, which means they're not going to buy the house.

In the year 2000, lending practices were changing. In 1999, the Home Price to Income Ratio was 3.0. In 2006, it was 4.6, 153% of the 1999 value, which correlates to the rise in home prices. Below is a chart showing historical values of this ratio. The median yearly prime rate is also included for comparison. What we see is that the prime rate historically has not affected the home price to income ratio. House price to income ratio data is from The State of The Nation's Housing 2007 put out by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Well is it bad that more people are able to buy homes that previously weren't able to. No, everyone that wants to buy a home should be able to buy one. Is it bad that people are allowed to buy homes that are 153% the price of homes that they would have been able to buy in 2000. Definately!

It is bad for them, it is bad for the housing market and it is bad for the economy. The extra money that is being used to pay for housing is not going to other areas of the economy.

Lenders and appraisers should have done a better job keeping house prices in check and they had the power to do so. All the money they were making probably clouded their judgment.

The median house price needs to be around $200,000 not $303,517, that means they need to come down about 33%. That's not even factoring the spike in the cost of crude oil and how that impacts so many other aspects of our economy, not just the price of gas. If it costs more to drive a truck full of vegetables from the farm to the market, the price of vegetables is going to go up. You can take a bike or public transportation all the time but you can't completely avoid the price of gas.

How long is it going to take for that correction? Let me turn to the tech bubble again and bring up a quote from Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems which I used in the past. Sun is one of the iconic companies that was affected by the tech bubble and is still around.

But two years ago we were selling at 10 times revenues when we were at $64. At 10 times revenues, to give you a 10-year payback, I have to pay you 100% of revenues for 10 straight years in dividends. That assumes I can get that by my shareholders. That assumes I have zero cost of goods sold, which is very hard for a computer company. That assumes zero expenses, which is really hard with 39,000 employees. That assumes I pay no taxes, which is very hard. And that assumes you pay no taxes on your dividends, which is kind of illegal. And that assumes that with zero R&D for the next 10 years, I can maintain the current revenue run rate. Now, having done that, would any of you like to buy my stock at $64? Do you realize how ridiculous those basic assumptions are? You don’t need any transparency. You don’t need any footnotes. What were you thinking?

It took around 2 years for Sun's stock price (NasdaqGS:JAVA) to finally hit bottom. Can we afford two years until the housing market hits bottom? I don't think so. People need to come to terms with what has happened and start making changes. A lot of people are going to get hurt. But I think we're better off making things happen sooner, rather than later. We don't need people trying to keep housing prices afloat so that they can get out at a reasonable price. All they are doing is handing off that debt to someone else that may not be able to afford it. Although it does seem that with the collapse of the sub prime market lenders are starting to be more conservative. And as I've posted earlier, the local lenders that stuck with their conservative lending practices throughout the hype have been doing better than the large commercial lenders.

We had a good balance going for a long time that worked and we need to get back to it quickly. While there were ups and downs in the housing market it was usually due to external factors.

So how did things get so out of hand? The post Speculation or Investment, on the Irvine Bubble Blog, is a good explanation of some of the things that happened. The practices of lenders also contributed, as well as appraisers that were willing to fudge some numbers. At any point, lenders could have said, like the community based lenders did, "We're not going to authorize a loan for that amount, we don't think the house is worth it." Should taxpayers be expected to bail out these companies that could have prevented the problems but instead chose to profit by authorizing loans for properties with inflated market values to people that shouldn't have been able to qualify for that loan in the first place?

Update: Bergen County Information

There was a question in the comments by Donald about how Bergen County looks. I did some digging and found income data for Bergen County NJ and used the charts posted by Rich on to come up with a Bergen County specific chart.

For the recommended price I used 3.46 times the median income. The reason I used this value is because from 1990-1999 this was the average home price to income ratio. In 2000 is when the ratio started to rise dramatically. At it's peak in 2007 it was over 5.5. The 2008 value is about 90% of the 2007 value. Notice though, that the drop in home prices isn't as sharp as the ratio drop. That indicates to me that prices haven't adjusted inline with the ratio, but as you can see from 2000 up, prices did increase inline with the ratio. As lenders tighten up and the ratio comes back down to the 3-4 range, we should see an appropriate drop in house prices.

Some numbers to put things in perspective

So lets look at some numbers. In 2006, the median home price was $303,517 and using a home price to income ratio of 3.0 the median home price would have been $199,710. HUD's Median household income for 2006 is $66,570.

Assuming putting down 20% and an interest rate of 6.39% (the 2006 median 30 year fixed mortgage), the average household would be spending $1,517.22 a month, not counting property taxes and insurance, for their mortgage. If they bought at the 3.0 ratio price their monthly mortgage payment would be $998.31. That's a difference of $518.91 a month. That's an extra 10% of their gross monthly income. Assume a third goes to taxes and that's 12.5%.

$518.91/month is $6,226.92 a year that could be going into the economy in areas other than housing, per household. The maximum economic stimulus rebate for a married couple is $1,200.

Average Family Budget From
Food $453.00
Alcohol $36.00
Apparel and Services $143.00
Transportation $611.00
Healthcare $202.00
Entertainment $173.90
Personal care products and services $45.43
Reading $10.18
Education $70.50
Tobacco products and smoking supplies $22.72
Miscellaneous $54.05
Cash contributions $110.45
Personal Insurance and Pensions $378.00
Median Home Mortgage at 6.4% $1,517.22
Total Expenses (not including prop tax or home insurance) $3,827.44

Average HUD Estimated Household Income less 1/3 taxes $3,698.33

Total leftover for savings, property taxes and home insurance $-129.11

And that's if you got an average mortgage APR for a 30 year fixed mortgage, put 20% down like you used to be expected to. If you didn't put that much down you'd be in worse shape. So obviously the average household will have to spend less to be able to afford their home. Which means less money going back into the economy.


What are your thoughts on the future of the Bergen market? Real estate is very local and each market will behave very differently.

Posted by Donald on June 07, 2008 at 10:27 PM EDT #

Also, since I am on your blog, I thought I would mention that many of the foreclosure listings on the sheriffs website where you get your data from are actually quite difficult to purchase since most of them go back to the bank. Very rarely are these houses actually purchased by private individuals. According to the article below, 97% of the houses at foreclousre auctions go back to the bank. Quite frankly, I think it is a waste of time attending these auctions and you are better off sticking with REOs.

Posted by Donald on June 07, 2008 at 10:40 PM EDT #


I haven't been able to find the data local to Bergen County to make the same type of assessment but NJ as a whole hasn't been unaffected by what's been going on in the housing market.

The average household income in Bergen County is very high. Second only to Hunterdon County in NJ if I remember correctly. So housing should be more expensive in Bergen.

From what I can tell, median household income for the Bergen-Passaic area was $52,659 or $72,600 depending where you get the data from. A 150% rise would be $78,988 and $108,900. Unfortunately HUD changed the way they track data for Bergen County so I can't ind a direct comparison. But I doubt it's jumped so high.

Posted by Tom on June 07, 2008 at 10:48 PM EDT #

In regards to the foreclosures listed on this site. They're technically pre foreclosures. Many don't make it to auction for various reasons. I'm working on improvements for the site to better indicate the status of properties and a post with more information.

In the meantime, I responded to a similar comment in a previous post. Look at the comments here

Posted by Tom on June 07, 2008 at 10:59 PM EDT #

Also, I did find consistent data for Bergen County for 2000 and 2005 Median Income for the Hud numbers. 2000 was $72,600 as I previously stated and 2005 was $83,500. An increase of only 115%.

According to the charts Rich posted on NJREReport, house prices from 2000 to 2005 jumped from around $375,000 to $650,000 for Bergen County. An increase of 173%.

Posted by Tom on June 07, 2008 at 11:05 PM EDT #

Your take on the further price drops required to restore some kind of equilibrium is roughly similar to Bill Gross'. However, I don't see sellers in this market coming to a decision to take down prices en masse for the public good. Much more likely we get a big chunk of whatever decline remains at a point where a large segment of rather desperate sellers collectively reach the conclusion that they- for whatever reason- need to get out, and get out fast. When a bunch of sellers realize all at once that a loss today is better than a bigger loss tomorrow, we're on the way to seeing a return of adequate deal flow.

Of course, when all the sellers rush for the exits, many find the exits are barred shut. If we are in for another 30%-ish drop in prices, we may well get half of that in one fell swoop during this "rush for the exits". Gapping supply/demand imbalances- just as in any lightly-traded, fairly illiquid market- will ensure nasty downward volatility.

In my area, I'm noticing more sellers willing to price to market and fewer sellers willing to tolerate excessive days-on-market in order to obtain a fantasy price. These are hopeful developments, as it signals the "need to sell" crowd is on the rise, and the "want to sell" crowd may be moving to the sidelines.

Posted by Clotpoll on June 07, 2008 at 11:48 PM EDT #


Thanks for commenting I was hoping you would.

I don't think it's up to the sellers to decide to lower their prices. I think it's up to buyers and lenders to do that for them. Sellers can list a property for whatever they want, and as we saw in Rich's Bergen County charts, the disparity between actual sales price and listing price has grown to levels never before seen.

Homeowners that bought within the last couple of years and those that cashed out all their equity, that need to sell their homes now are going to have to do so at a loss.

Lenders seem to be getting more conservative as well. I've seen a few reports of sales falling through because buyers that were pre-qualified for a loan have gotten denied when it came time to close. You're in a better position to tell if any of this is going on.

The house price to income ratio is going to have to come down. Too many bad things have happened to lenders because of it.

Posted by Tom on June 08, 2008 at 12:12 AM EDT #

An increase of only 115%. An increase of 173%.

I didn't word that right. The 2005 values are 115% and 173% of the 2000 values. They didn't increase that much.

Posted by Tom on June 08, 2008 at 01:24 AM EDT #

Hi Tom,

From what I see, very few houses at the Bergen sheriff auction are sold. If you compare the list of SOLD houses ( ) to the list of for sale houses ( ), the sold list is significantly smaller. I monitor the SOLD list frequently so that when something good is on it, I can contact the bank that bought the house at auction. But, unfortunately, 99% of the hosues in the prestigious parts of Bergen County never make it onto the SOLD list.

And then there is the issue that you have no idea what you are buying at the auction, which can be quite bad, as the buyers of 25 Burning Hollow Road in Saddle River learned the hard way.

Posted by Donald on June 08, 2008 at 01:34 PM EDT #

I think there is a big difference betwen lisitng prices and sold prices because of the "lowball" style offers buyers make. A few years ago, it was unheard of to offer less than 90% of the asking price. Now buyers make offers for far less than that... sometimes for as little as 50% of the asking price!!! While there are overpriced selelrs out there with fnatasy prices, there are just as many as unrealisitic buyers looking to "steal" a house at a fire sale. I am a realist. Sure I would love to sell my house for $1.2 million. Sure I would like to snatch up a McMansion in Alpine for $700,000, but I know that will never happen.

Posted by Donald on June 08, 2008 at 01:41 PM EDT #


You're missing one thing in regards to foreclosures. Some of the houses that don't make it to auction do so because they were bought before the auction. If there's a good deal, investors will contact the owner and try and make a private purchase before it goes to auction. I don't have access to the data I need to show in which cases that happens.

A lot of owners owe more than their houses are worth, and more than people looking to buy at foreclosures are willing to pay, so people won't even bother with the majority of foreclosures. You should check out the book I recommended in this posting it will give you good information on the full foreclosure process.

Look at this condo href= that had around a 6k judgment and sold at auction for $8,500. FLB Properties might be an RE investment company that got a really good deal. Ragan & Ragan are attorneys that specialize in dealing with debt, so maybe it was a roundabout way for the owner to get the property back. In either case, If it didn't owe a lot in back taxes and was in good shape the auction price was a steal. You have to dig to find these kinds of deals and this site can help you do it. But it doesn't end here.

Buying a foreclosure requires a lot of research to find the few good ones in the lot. This site tries to provide some, but not all the information you'll need to find the good ones. You still have to do a bit of offline research.

There was one house I saw being offered for sale on craigslist for $380,000. It was a duplex built in 2006. The builder was listing them at $425,000. The guy offering it picked it up at an auction 2 days earlier for $300,000.

As I tried to demonstrate in this post, home prices are falling. I wouldn't call these offers "lowball" instead I think that sellers are trying to hang on to the high flying prices of the past couple of years but buyers and lenders are being more realistic.

The house price to income ratio is going to have to start coming back down which is going to result in buyers not being able to spend as much on housing which will bring the house prices down. House prices were inflated because more buyers had access to capital. Now that capital has dried up. Lower demand is going to bring prices down.

It doesn't matter what the seller paid for the home. Market forces determine the price, not what the buyer invested. If the seller paid too much for a house because he bought towards the peak of the bubble, then he made a bad investment. Take gold as an example. The 1yr high of gold was around $1,000/oz and now it's around $900/oz. If you bought at the peak you are not entitled to sell it at what you paid for it plus enough to make a profit. You sell it at what the market price is.

The worth of anything isn't determined by what was paid for it, it is determined by what people are willing to pay for it.

Posted by Tom on June 08, 2008 at 03:07 PM EDT #

Some great news for the NJ housing market:

Posted by Donald on June 08, 2008 at 07:37 PM EDT #

And today we learned that">the 4% increase in NJ was actually a 30% decrease in home sales.. Time for NAR to brush up on their math skills.

On Friday, the Realtors' group issued a huge correction, saying that instead of a slight increase, New Jersey's housing market actually saw a 30 percent drop in home sales during the first quarter compared with the same period last year.

Posted by Tom on June 14, 2008 at 10:05 PM EDT #

I don't know Donald, news from an appraisal company and a mortgage association?

I'd take their opinions with a grain of salt.

Posted by Tom on June 08, 2008 at 08:15 PM EDT #

Tom, Do you have moderation? I tried to post earlier - thought it went through but do not see it here.

On another note, check out my update. I think I may have uncovered a mortgage fraud case. Your comment on my post got me thinking that something did not add up. You know alot about some of the Bergen mortgage scams so I would really like to know what you think.


Posted by NJHH on June 08, 2008 at 09:49 PM EDT #


Some comments are automatically marked as spam but I can mark them as normal. I didn't see any comments from you earlier. There are no comments awaiting moderation in the system right now. So if you want to repost it you can, otherwise it has disappeared.

If the system does think it's spam it will indicate it to you as well.

There's also a math question below that you have to answer for the post to go through. I know I've forgotten to answer that myself.

Another reason that a comment might not go through is if you click Preview and then don't follow up with Post and answer the math question.

I'm going to go check out your update now.

Posted by Tom on June 08, 2008 at 09:56 PM EDT #

OK. Thanks.

Posted by NJHH on June 08, 2008 at 10:37 PM EDT #

The data from MBA is reliable.... more relaible than the data from RealtyTrac, which incidentally makes their money off of foreclosures. THe more of them, the more they make. The less of them, the less they make.

Posted by Donald on June 09, 2008 at 02:46 PM EDT #

I didn't say the MBA numbers weren't reliable. I said take their opinions with a grain of salt.

All they did was indicate that the numbers increased over one month. Using one data point to make an assumption that the market is turning around is nuts.

I don't know what RealtyTrac has to do with this unless that's where Rich got the Bergen County figures.

The data I used for the national charts was from the US Census and from HUD.

Lenders made a huge mistake allowing the house price to index ratio get so high. Look at the recent news for the huge loses for lenders. The reports indicate this is just the beginning. Lenders are going to have to go back to their more conservative lending practices. When they do, the decreased access to capital will make housing prices get back in line.

People that bought during the bubble that need to sell should do so sooner rather than later. Even though they may take a loss now I think down the road prices will be worse. If you look at what banks are doing with their REO properties, they're listing them for really cheap so that a bidding war ensues to drive up the price to "market value". Homeowners looking to sell now should figure out what the market value of their home is and price it 10% below that. That should hopefully get them multiple offers to bring the listing price up. Unfortunately for most, they're going to lose money if they bought during the peak and have to sell.

I don't see how there can be a turnaround. The gov't is going to start bailing out banks at tax payers expense and the homeowners are going to be shafted.

The house price to income ratio needs to come down and that decline already started and house prices are following. It needs to come down even more.

During the tech bubble I saw the same thing. Interested parties trying to highlight any tiny glimmer of hope to help keep shares afloat until they could cash out. We all know what happened back then. Let's not get fooled twice.

Posted by Tom on June 09, 2008 at 03:11 PM EDT #

WIth all due respect Tom, I think you put too much emphasis on bank owned houses impacting the Bergen market. In Bergen, the REO invnentory is quite small. According to a recent Record article, there are only 43 REOs in the county... which does not even come out to 1 house per town in Bergen County. This is not Sotckton, California or Miami where foreclosures control the destiny of the market. It does not really matter what banks price their hosues at because there are so fe REOs here. And a large chunk of REOs are in horrible condition or in marginal areas where the average person would rather not live.

Posted by Donald on June 09, 2008 at 06:29 PM EDT #

Donald, I have no idea what you're talking about. I didn't make any reference to bank owned houses. In fact I never mentioned the words foreclosure, foreclosed, etc. Can you tell me where in my post I put an emphasis on foreclosures or REO's so I can see if I need to fix it. When writing this post I didn't look at any foreclosure numbers so I'm a bit surprised someone might think I put any emphasis on foreclosures.

My post is about how lenders deviated from their conservative practices and allowed people to borrow more than they would have allowed in the past. This is reflected in the sharp increase in the house price to income ratio both in Bergen County and nationwide.

In the beginning of this decade interest rates were dropping. That alone has happened in the past and the house price to income ratio hasn't improved. In fact, when the prime rate was almost 20% in 1981 and when it eventually dropped down to single digits, the house price to income ratio didn't really budge. Oil prices were also falling during this period and lenders began giving bigger mortgages to more people. As a result prices rose to unprecedented levels.

Now oil is going up, interest rates are going up and the house price to income ratio is coming back down. I theorize that it will eventually get back to the 3.0 level nationwide because that seems to be a good level that worked for many years. If I were to guess on where the Bergen County price to income ratio would end up I'd say somewhere in the 3.4-3.8 range. Right now it is over 5.

Posted by Tom on June 09, 2008 at 06:55 PM EDT #

Also, what does RealtyTrac have to do what your previous comment? It's my understanding that Rich got his numbers from njmls.

Posted by Tom on June 09, 2008 at 07:01 PM EDT #


I was responding to the comment you made below:

"If you look at what banks are doing with their REO properties, they're listing them for really cheap so that a bidding war ensues to drive up the price to "market value"."

It sounded like you were implying that REOs were going to cuase prices in this area to plummet, and that is what I was responding to in my post.

Posted by Donald on June 09, 2008 at 08:16 PM EDT #


I don't see how that comment implies what you think it is implying.

Nowhere in my comment did I say that REO's would drive down the price of other homes. What I said was that if people want to sell their homes in this current market they should do what banks are doing with REO's.

It's not just banks. It's a common practice to under price a home to generate interest in the hopes of getting multiple offers to hopefully start a bidding war.

While I didn't say REO's are diving the price of houses down in this market, I do feel that prices will continue to drop because of the house price to income ratio is going to have to come down. There are two ways for it to come down, either people's income will go up, which isn't likely to increase to match house prices with the current economy, or house prices are going to have to come down.

Posted by Tom on June 09, 2008 at 08:35 PM EDT #

"It's a common practice to under price a home to generate interest in the hopes of getting multiple offers to hopefully start a bidding war."

I have yet to see that happen in my area.

Posted by Donald on June 09, 2008 at 09:38 PM EDT #

I'd like to create house price / income charts for Washington, DC... where would I find income data, perhaps broken down by zip code or at least county?

I'd appreciate any advice you could give. Thanks.

Posted by Mark on July 10, 2008 at 01:00 PM EDT #


HUD puts out household income and price data on their website. The data is on a national level as well as broken up by metropolitan areas.

It's a bit of a pain because you have to get the data for each year individual then put it together in a spreadsheet. Time consuming but that's how I did it.

Posted by Tom on July 11, 2008 at 02:46 PM EDT #

Where do you get national median prices were 300k in 2006? That's simply not true.

No national index from the census, BLS, or NAR indicates it was ever that high. In fact, it was over 250k for only one or two months when it peaked...

Posted by J on October 31, 2008 at 12:30 PM EDT #

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