As much as the bursting of the real estate bubble devastated the economy, destroyed hopes, and caused untold pain, there is a silver lining for would-be home buyers in today's market. All that pain presents the potential for great bargains for the right buyer.
In most American cities, the cost of real estate is lower than it’s been in decades. On average, home prices in the U.S. have fallen more than 27 percent below their peak prices. But even that figure is deceiving, because it doesn't take into account the desperation of some hard-pressed sellers to ditch their homes.
Often faced with the hard realities of pay-cuts, lay-offs, and neighborhoods devalued by short-sells and foreclosures, sellers have less negotiating power.
"If I have a foreclosure on a house six houses away, I'm going to lose value in my house. If I have another foreclosure ten blocks away down the street I'm going to lose additional value. And then it compounds itself," said John Taylor of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
But this loss in value is the buyers gain. Amy Bohutinsky of real estate Web site Zillow.com, which tracks prices closely across the nation, sees a pattern in some depressed markets.
"If a home is listed at one price, ultimately it sells for 10 or 15 thousand dollars less,” Bohutinsky said. “That means buyers have negotiation power."
And where are those markets with the best real estate deals? Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said the best buys often tend to be in those areas where the race to build was greatest in the boom years, and where foreclosures are common.
"In places like Miami, one can pick up a nice condo for about $60,000. Same situation in Las Vegas because of so much abundant foreclosed inventory, the banks are just releasing property at deep discounted prices,” Yun said. “We are seeing the transaction increase once the prices are drastically reduced."
Bohutinsky says three metropolitan areas in Florida, in particular, offer extraordinary bargains: Orlando, Tampa, and Sarasota. But Yun adds many other metropolitan areas offer prime buys.
"In middle America between the mountains -- the Appalachian Mountains and Rocky Mountains -- the median prices are about $120,000,” Yun said. “Anyone with a stable decent job would be able to buy a home.” Zillow.com's figures also suggest that Minneapolis, Chicago and San Luis Obispo, Calif. have seen precipitous declines in housing prices at some income levels and leaving bargains for would-be-buyers.
But if those people with stable jobs are not yet clamoring to pick up distressed properties, there's a good reason. Experts believe that the market may not yet have hit bottom.
“We know that home values are still falling across much of the U.S., and that they probably will continue to fall throughout this year,” Bohutinsky said. “At Zillow.com, our economists are saying that the bottom is likely be somewhere between the mid and latter half of the year, and from there, home values will probably stay at the bottom for the next year or two."
And the prospect of flipping homes? Buying and selling for a quick profit? Those days may be gone for all but the most seasoned investors.
"Mortgages are harder to come by," Bohutinsky said."Your average Joe is not going to go be able to go and obtain multiple mortgages on all of these homes and be able to hold out for a decade for home prices to recoup and actually make some money on this."
Most experts agree that values will increase at a much more modest pace, once the market bottoms out. That may be a welcome change after the rollercoaster that home owners have ridden the last few years.