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Linkage in Income, Home Prices Shifts

Realty sign home for sale.jpg

April 12: A sale pending sign is posted on the realty sign, at a home in Wilmington, Mass. (AP)

Home prices in some of the nation's hardest-hit metro areas have fallen far below pre-bubble levels, stirring concerns that properties in those markets are undervalued.

In a recent analysis, real-estate firm Zillow Inc. studied the correlation between home prices and annual incomes over the 15-year period that ended in 2000, before home prices began to surge.

For decades, price-to-income levels have moved in tandem, with a specific housing market's prices rising or falling in line with local residents' incomes. Many economists say that makes the price-to-income ratio a good gauge for determining whether housing is undervalued or overvalued for a given market.

Zillow found property prices in one-third of nearly 130 housing markets across the nation were undervalued, when compared with residents' current income and the pre-bubble trend.

"At a broad level, it is helpful to understand that if people in certain markets paid three times their average income in housing before the bubble, those markets are probably going to get back to that level," said Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow.

The analysis underscores a broader point: While the nation's housing markets largely fell and rose together during the housing boom and bust, they aren't likely to hit bottom and begin recovery at the same time or pace. The Zillow analysis shows that many markets still appear to be overvalued.

For the U.S. as a whole, home prices were around 2.9 times incomes from 1985 to 2000. But during the housing boom, values increased at a much faster rate than incomes. The price-to-income ratio peaked at around 5.1 in 2005. Home prices have since fallen so that on average, nationally, prices are around 3.3 times incomes, or about 14% above the historical trend.

Of course, prices have fallen much faster in certain markets. In Las Vegas, home prices are now 25% below their historic price-to-income trend of 2.7. During the housing bubble, that ratio more than doubled to 5.6. Home prices have been falling for the past five years, and by March, prices were just 2.1 times household incomes.

Click here to read the entire Wall Street Journal report.

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