According to data released Tuesday, housing prices fell in March to their lowest point since the downturn began. The Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index for 20 large cities fell 0.8 percent from February, the eighth drop in a row. Prices are now down 33.1 percent from the July 2006 peak.
“Home prices continue on their downward spiral with no relief in sight,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the S.& P. index committee.
Housing is in persistent trouble, industry analysts say, not only because so many people are blocked from the market — being unemployed, in foreclosure or trapped in homes that are worth less than the mortgage — but because even those who are solvent are opting out.
The desire to own your own home, long a bedrock of the American Dream, is fast becoming a casualty of the worst housing downturn since the Great Depression.
Even as the economy began to fitfully recover in the last year, the percentage of homeowners dropped sharply, to 66.4 percent, from a peak of 69.2 percent in 2004. The ownership rate is now back to the level of 1998, and some housing experts say it could decline to the level of the 1980s or even earlier.
“The emotional scars left by the collapse are changing the American psyche,” said Pete Flint, chief executive of the housing Web site Trulia. “There was a time when owning a home was a symbol you had made it. Now it’s O.K. not to own.”
Trulia, a real estate search engine for buyers and renters that is based here, is a hive of renters, including Mr. Flint. “I’m in no rush at all to buy,” he said. He expects homeownership to decline further to about 63 percent, a level the country first achieved in the mid-1960s.
The new Case-Shiller data did not offer much room for short-term optimism. The national housing index, which is reported quarterly, fell 4.2 percent in the first quarter after a drop of 3.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010. This, too, is a new recession low.
Twelve of the 20 cities in the index hit a new recession low in March. Washington was the only city where prices rose both in March and over the last year.
Years of declines are teaching potential buyers to expect more of the same. Tim Hebb, a Los Angeles systems engineer, expertly called the real estate bubble. He sold his bungalow in August 2006, then leased it back for a year. Since then, the 61-year-old single father has rented a succession of apartments.
“I have flirted with buying again many times over the past few years,” said Mr. Hebb. “Let’s face it, people are not rational creatures.”
But he always resists, figuring housing is still overpriced and even when it stops declining it will stumble along the bottom for years and years. He says there is plenty of time to get back in if he should ever want to.
Housing prices are now back to where they were in mid-2002. Such a decline was literally unimaginable to the boosters and many of the analysts in the middle of the boom, who were fond of saying that house prices never fell on a national basis.
But as credit dried up and the easy refinances disappeared, the foreclosures began. Prices fell sharply in late 2006, 2007 and 2008.
The market turned around in 2009, prompting hopes that the worst was over. A government tax credit proved wildly popular but after it expired a year ago the declines resumed.
When demand will naturally reignite to stabilize the market is a matter of debate. Most economists have been saying that they think the price declines will level off in the second half of this year, although a few think they will continue until 2012. What no one seems to anticipate is any sort of a brisk recovery. Instead they see a muddling along until the foreclosure crisis diminishes and the excess housing supply is soaked up.
The financial blog Calculated Risk estimated the excess housing supply this week using 2010 Census data, which it compared to 1990 and 2000. The blog concluded that the excess supply in April 2010 was about 1.8 million units but probably several hundred thousand fewer now