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Are We Still Looking for the Bottom?

Last week, while I was on vacation, the release of the latest monthly Case-Shiller home price index brought a glimmer of good news: in July, for the third month in a row, local home prices were up. Could this be a sign that the Chicago real-estate market has finally bottomed out?…

Last week, while I was on vacation, the release of the latest monthly Case-Shiller home price index brought a glimmer of good news: in July, for the third month in a row, local home prices were up. Could this be a sign that the Chicago real-estate market has finally bottomed out?

“It’s premature to say where things will end up,” says Matt Farrell, managing partner at Urban Real Estate, echoing the other agents to whom I posed the same question. “Things seem to be moving in a positive direction, and it’s a sign of a little more consumer confidence that buying a house is not the risk it was when prices were continuing to drop and drop. But are we at the bottom? Who’s to say?”

While this string of increases is certainly positive news, there’s nothing sure anymore about where home prices are headed. “Three months does not a trend make,” says Jim Kinney, the vice president of luxury home sales at Baird & Warner.

Kinney and others suspect that the upticks were purely seasonal. “These increases came in the summer, which is generally a good time for the market,” says Mabel Guzman, an @Properties agent who today completes her tenure as president of the Chicago Association of Realtors. Since the market peaked in September 2006, there have been two prolonged strings of increases in the Case-Shiller index for Chicago: in the summers of 2009 and 2010. In 2009, prices rose every month from May through September; in 2010, they rose every month from April through August. (In both instances, average home prices were higher than they are this year.)

Our present upward tilt started in May, and the latest data is for July. Based on the past two years’ experience, we could see one or two more months of increases.

Or not. Thad Wong, the co-owner of @Properties, notes that homebuyers’ confidence has been closely paralleling the performance of the stock market, with about a 90-day lag between rises in the Dow and rises in home sales volume. This latest uptick in local home prices, Wong says, “came on the heels of strong stock market news,” news that has now softened. Sales have noticeably slowed since the summer months, he adds, so he foresees the next few months of home price data to be “more moderate.”

The slowdown is visible in Hinsdale, too, says Linda Feinstein of ERA Team Feinstein. “We’ve had a huge slowdown, almost a halting, of the properties at $600,000 or less, our entry price,” Feinstein says. “The time on market is longer, and inventory is up again.” The upper-end homes, which are mostly bought without a mortgage, are moving, she says—and at the record-low interest rates that are available now, middle-priced homes “should be flying off the market, but there’s a lot of buyer uncertainty, job uncertainty.”

Also uncertain is the next phase of the foreclosure crisis. Kinney and Guzman both note that, because banks have slowed down their foreclosure processes since the discovery of assorted abuses, nobody knows for sure when the rest of the likely foreclosures will come onto the market. When they do, “that flood of low-priced properties will pull prices lower again,” Kinney says. “We’ll keep our eyes on that as we continue walking along the bottom.” Or what seems like one at the moment.

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