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Jitters On The Home Front


By Maria Bartiromo Recent weeks have knocked a lot of the exuberance -- irrational or otherwise -- out of the housing market. Homebuilders KB Home (KBH) and Toll Brothers (TOL) reported an increase in order cancellations and a decline in net orders for new homes. And Hovnanian Enterprises (HOV) said it sees a softening in the pace of home sales and in price increases in some markets. I caught up with three housing heavyweights -- CEO Angelo Mozilo of mortgage lender Countrywide Financial (CFC), CEO Bruce Karatz of KB Home, and real estate bear Professor Bob Shiller of Yale University -- and asked how worried we should be.

How would you characterize the housing market right now?

MOZILO: The market has turned. The psychology of the buyers for single-family homes has clearly changed. We are seeing it from the flow of loan applications. If I had to pick a time, I would have to say it turned in January.

SHILLER: The real question is: Will it be a soft landing, or will prices come down substantially? It's hard to say because this is the biggest housing boom that this nation has ever seen, so we are in uncharted territory. I worry about a big fall because prices today are being supported by a speculative fever.... Home buyers typically expect price appreciation of 10% [a year] for the next few years, and that is not realistic. But I have learned humility when forecasting. Remember, we've had drops that looked similar before, notably at the end of 2003.

KARATZ: [The slowdown] started for us in our first quarter [beginning Dec. 1]. I think we will see the market settle off of its highs but still remain at very historically healthy rates two or three months from now. And with interest rates still attractive and the economy still chugging along, I think we will see housing come through very well. I would simply say that there is no indication that we should dramatize the present condition of the housing market.

How severe are the price declines you are expecting?

MOZILO: I would expect a general decline of 5% to 10% throughout the country, some areas 20%. And in areas where you have had heavy speculation, you could have 30%. We will see...sellers back off from the prices they have been demanding. A year or a year and half from now, you will have seen a slow deterioration of home values and a substantial deterioration in those areas where there has been speculative excess.

SHILLER: In Los Angeles in the last cycle, prices peaked in 1989 and bottomed out in 1997. In that interval, L.A. lost 40% of its real value. I can see that happening there again or in any of the cities that have had tremendous price increases, and there are quite a number of them in this country. I think a pullback of as much as 40% is plausible in many places.

KARATZ: I don't see a fundamental slowdown other than in the hottest markets. Things don't continue through the roof forever. This is a breather in prices, and that takes some steam out of the market. In some markets, 10% to 15% of buyers were speculators. You take them out, and the market drops 10% to 15%, and it takes three to four months for whatever overhang there was to be sold, and then the market stabilizes. That's where I think we will be three to four months from now.

Where are the most vulnerable areas?

MOZILO: Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Las Vegas is another area where there is heavy speculation. That means people were buying three, four, five condos at a time and thinking they can flip them. Those are the spots we have identified where... we will only make loans when we know the person will live [in the housing].

SHILLER: The most spectacular cases are Phoenix and Las Vegas. They soared so suddenly. But others [are vulnerable, too,] such as San Francisco, San Diego, L.A. -- really much of California.

Will your earnings be hurt?

MOZILO: What we have to do is gain market share in order to stay even with last year. I have not been acquisitive. But given the size we are now, the largest in the world, it's hard to grow organically. There will be victims of the slowdown. And there will be fallout, and we will survey the field and see if we can acquire things on an opportunistic basis.

Maria Bartiromo is the host of CNBC's Closing Bell


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