Where home prices are going next, according to forecast models

The COVID-19 housing market—underpinned by remote work, pandemic-induced low mortgage rates, and a demographic wave of first-time homebuyers—has been among the hottest in the nation's history. Since the onset of the crisis, median home list prices are up 23%.

Recently, some of that exuberance has finally left the market. Indeed, since bottoming out this spring, housing inventory is up 30% as some homebuyers start to balk at record prices, and more sellers—who fear losing out on big gains—are listing. While the market is clearly still a seller's market, it has inched a bit in buyers’ favor in recent months.

But what does softening in the housing market mean for home price growth?

The consensus among the industry's forecast models is that we're headed for slower growth, albeit still positive. The weakest projection comes from real estate research firm CoreLogic, which is forecasting just a 2.7% appreciation in the coming 12 months. Meanwhile, John Burns Real Estate Consulting and Freddie Mac—which do calendar year forecasts—project home price growth of 4% and 5.3%, respectively, in 2022.

"Annual home price growth was the most that we have ever seen in the 45-year history of the CoreLogic Home Price Index. This price gain has far exceeded income growth and eroded affordability, wrote Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic, in his latest market outlook report. "In the coming months this will temper demand and lead to a slowing in price growth."

Already, we're starting to see this slowing appreciation materialize in the market. Between April 2020 and April 2021, median home prices on Realtor.com skyrocketed 17.2%. But over the most recent 12-month period, that rate was just 8.6% year over year. While this represents numerical "softening," it's easy to imagine how it might not feel like it to the typical homebuyer. After all, 8.6% is still well above most Americans' annual pay bump.

How can home prices keep rising after posting such large gains? It all comes down to supply and demand. As Fortune has previously reported, we’re in the middle of the five-year period during which the largest chunk of millennials, those born between 1989 and 1993, are hitting their thirties—the age when first-time homebuying really kicks into gear. Meanwhile, housing supply is simply outmatched: Reeling from the 2008 housing bust, homebuilders spent the past decade playing it safe rather than aggressively building what this demographic wave would need. As a result, the U.S. is now under-built by around 4 million homes, according to a recent analysis by Freddie Mac.

But strong fundamentals don't mean the market is free of risk.

The biggest wild card is Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. If inflation-concerned central bankers raise interest rates sooner than expected, it would translate into downward pressure on real estate prices.

The second unknown is tied to the end of federal pandemic protections. At the end of September, the mortgage forbearance program—which currently protects 1.5 million homeowners—will begin to wind down. Some of those struggling borrowers could opt to sell their home. The latest forecast by Zillow estimates 25% of those forbearance mortgage holders will list their home. While that would certainly increase housing inventory, it wouldn't fundamentally change the current market. However, Zillow researchers write if they're wrong, and it's actually 50% of forbearance borrowers who list their homes, then the market would see "a significant deterioration from current conditions."

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