A tracker for housing-price trends

07/12/2014 12:00 AM

07/10/2014 2:37 PM

Home buyers, sellers, small investors and realty agents are about to get new tools that purport to show where local property values are headed: the first “house specific” monitors for consumers that can track price trends — and forecast them up to one year into the future — on 50 million single-family homes across the country.

The service already is commercially available to hedge funds and mortgage investors who purchase large quantities of data to guide their investment decisions. Its developer is Allan Weiss, who co-founded and was CEO of the company that pioneered the iconic “Case-Shiller” price index of major metropolitan markets that is widely cited as a barometer of the housing sector’s health.

But unlike Case-Shiller, which reports on price trends in roughly 5,000 ZIP Code areas, Weiss Residential Research tracks individual houses in most neighborhoods nationwide. Weiss says the company expects to add another 20 million houses to the current 50 million total as it continues to gather data on key characteristics from interior living space to tax assessments, mortgage balances, age of home, appraisal information and others. Weiss holds multiple patents on the statistical techniques and technology underpinning the company’s research and products.

The new house-specific indexes for consumers will not provide current property valuations or cover condominiums and cooperatives. Rather, they'll offer graphic displays of how prices on individual homes have moved — up, down, sideways — over a period of recent years in relation to an index. Later this summer, Weiss Residential will publish “weather reports” on price trends in major metropolitan markets on its website, www.weissres.com. The site already provides sample dynamic “heat maps” for eight large markets — Miami, Southern California, Chicago, Las Vegas, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York and Phoenix — that show how prices on individual homes rose and fell in the boom years leading up to the bust in 2006-07, and how they have performed since. The month-by-month movements almost look organic, with price declines spreading like a disease from one neighborhood to another, then reversing course during the recovery.

In an interview, Weiss said a close inspection of the heat maps reveals how “canary in the coal mine” houses were predictors of important changes in pricing trends getting underway — subtle early moves signaling the shift from boom to crash, then on to recovery — that were not otherwise detectable or known to consumers in the marketplace at the time. Buying or selling real estate without house-specific monitors in those years, he suggested, was the equivalent “of setting sail before a hurricane” with no advance weather warnings, no satellite photos of emerging meteorological conditions.

Weiss Residential will soon begin selling subscriptions to consumers showing precisely that sort of trend-line analysis. I got a sneak preview on my own home just outside the District of Columbia in Maryland. An indexed line graph showed price movements before, during and after the boom and bust, plus a forecast through March 2015.

The somewhat sobering result: The significant price jumps during the post-recession recovery years have now pretty much flattened out. My likely increase in value over the coming nine months: six-tenths of 1 percent. An accompanying heat map of houses in my ZIP Code in shades of green, pink and red revealed that a few houses in the area are showing slight price declines, though the overwhelming majority are positive.

Weiss says that by Labor Day or before, visitors to the website will be able to sign up for reports like this. Trend line house-specific graphs already are available on the 50 million properties in Weiss’ massive databases. Consumers who send emails to myhouse@weissres.com before the neighborhood-level heat maps become available, and list the property address and ZIP Code, will be able to purchase one-year forecasts and line graphs for $25.

How good are these price-change projections? We’ll see. Researchers at Weiss’ company tested their accuracy on 10,356 randomly selected houses in 17 states. The test covered price changes from 2005 through 2013. According to Weiss, the forecasts had an accuracy range of 74 percent to 84 percent, with the higher figure identifying negative pricing trends.

So while there is no guarantee of absolute accuracy, Weiss claims his house-specific indexes and heat maps provide buyers and sellers useful market directional guidance. By looking at subtle price changes within neighborhoods, then focusing on individual houses, Weiss believes that you should be able to make smarter decisions — and potentially avoid big mistakes.

Kenneth Harney is executive director of the National Real Estate Development Center.