Home prices continue to garner front-page attention. CoreLogic reports that prices declined for the sixth-straight month in January, dipping 1% from December. Year-over-year prices are down 3.1%. In short, CoreLogic says that prices are about where they were 10 years ago.CoreLogic offers one set of data on home prices, Clear Capital offers another, less ominous set. According to Clear Capital, national home prices declined only 1.9% year-over-year. What's more, its data show short-term prices being more stable, with prices falling only 0.6% from the third quarter to the fourth quarter of 2011.

Everyone is keeping a close eye on distressed properties. Now that last year's “robo-signing” foreclosure imbroglio is behind us does that mean we will see a surge in foreclosed and REO properties? And if so, how will they impact inventory and prices?

Pertinent questions, to be sure, and ones we don't have a ready answer for. We do know that the inventory of existing homes for sale declined 21%, or by 600,000 units, in 2011. At the most recently reported sales pace, that means we are looking at 6.1 months of supply – the lowest inventory level since April 2006. Lower supply supports higher prices.

Today's low inventory is attributed to falling foreclosure volume. But now that banks are free to foreclose, two million more homes are expected to hit the market over the next two years. If that's the case, then distressed inventory will rise sharply. Returning to economics: higher supply leads to lower prices.

There are a few extenuating factors though. The economy is improving, and continues to add jobs at an increasing rate. The private sector added 216,000 jobs last month, according to the latest national employment report from Automatic Data Processing. That's a significant increase over the 173,000 jobs added in January. More people working means more people who can afford a home.

The rise in REO properties could be offset by a decrease in other market segments. For instance, there was a significant increase in short sales in the fourth quarter of 2011, which pushed the number up to nearly 910,000 units nationwide. That said, the long-term trend for short sales is down; fewer short sales could be a counterweight to rising REO units.

Housing formation is another attenuating factor. After 2007, household formation plummeted to 300,000 per year from its historical rate of 1.25 million. We see a lot of pent up demand. The population continues to grow, the economy continues to improve, home affordability is at a multi-decade high. The market is ripe for a spike in new household formation.

In short, we don't expect new REO properties to upset the housing recovery like the more dire pundits are predicting.

Courtesy of Jessica Regan.

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