How formulaic housing coverage fails to serve home buyers and how it can be done better

I am seriously, maybe, a potential home buyer. Totally. If things fall into place. My wife and I are saving the money left after we buy diapers. We occasionally look at houses on Zillow, and she explains the importance of something called a “second bathroom.”

I check out the St. Petersburg Times' real estate snapshots, which tell me that this house in X neighborhood sold for Y after Z days — which would help me, if I wanted to live in X. (I usually don't.)

And I pay attention to local and national stories about the housing market – new housing starts, current prices and sales of existing homes, and foreclosure forecasts. (The latest round of stories started Tuesday, spurred by the release of the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index of home prices.)

These stories seem important; they have big headlines and run prominently in the paper and online. They use the latest figures to raise the all-important question of whether the market has hit bottom, often relying on an expert to size up the data and predict when the market will recover.

The bottom always seems to be six to nine months away.

At some point these forecasts will be correct. But with every blown prediction, these experts have less credibility. And over time, these stories become less useful to their audience: the people who own, and may own, homes.

It's time for news organizations to consider how they can serve that audience better. A start: Acknowledge what reporters and experts don't know. Because it's pretty evident already.

Is it time to buy?

For the past few years, whenever my wife and I discuss home ownership with friends or acquaintances, they tell us, “Well, now's the time to buy.” And I respond (sometimes then, sometimes later to my wife), “Tell me when it hasn't been time to buy.”

In the first part of the last decade, as people's homes turned into magically expanding piggy banks, it was time to buy. And then as prices collapsed it was again a good time to buy.

I know many people who bought homes during the bubble – not because they were speculators, but because it was the right time in their lives. Many of those people are now underwater on their mortgages or lost money when they sold.

I don't want to find myself in the same situation. Maybe I'm a fool for trying to time the market, but I never want to owe more money on my house than I can sell it for.

So I figured I should educate myself by reading every local and national story I came across. I figured that if I looked at enough snapshots of the market, eventually I'd be able to see the whole picture.

Like many people following news on a particular subject, I come to these stories with a question: Should I buy a house? Now? Ever?

These stories often speak precisely to this question. Some stories address whether this is a “buyer's market”; others surmise whether this is a “good time to buy.”

Such advice – sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit – factors into people's decisions, said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. This happened during the bubble, too. When people read stories about condos selling out before the concrete had been poured, they became willing to pay inflated prices.

According to Gallup, even through this historic drop in home values, a majority of Americans surveyed believe it's a good time to buy a house. Between 70 and 80 percent of people believed so during the bubble, and though that dropped to 52 percent in 2006, it's back up to 69 percent.

Dennis Jacobe, the chief economist for Gallup, said this belief stems from two different means of reasoning, each leading to the same conclusion, during good times and bad.

“When the economy was booming and housing prices were going up, it looked like a great time to buy a house,” he said. “But it was an investment, and the faster you got in, the more affordable it was.”

Now, when people hear about foreclosures, short sales and low interest rates, Jacobe said, it contributes to the “deal psychology.” Houses are more affordable.

A recent poll indicates that a minority of Americans believe their homes have lost value in the recession. “What does this mean?” asked Felix Salmon, who blogs for Reuters. “During the boom, Americans were hyper-conscious of how much their homes were worth. During the bust, they’re in denial.”

“The end is near”

Yet the boosterism evident in so many news stories is based on volatile, short-term figures and experts who have proven to be wrong over and over.

The stories are formulaic. Take an increase or decrease in one metric or another, even if the increase is dwarfed by the margin of error. Add an expert who speaks with authority about what this means for the general health of the market, and top off with a real estate agent offering a corroborating anecdote. Maybe, for some spice, throw in a conflicting opinion.

One of the few stories that ran counter to the trend, headlined “Why Home Prices Will Continue To Fall,” noted that “asking a Realtor whether it's a good time to buy a house is a little like asking a used car salesman whether it's a good time to buy an automobile.”

So why do it? Why cover these indices so microscopically, why use these sources, if they can't help people make wise decisions for themselves?

Breaking out of the routine coverage

Perhaps housing price indexes and home sales reports, like unemployment figures, are inherently newsworthy. If so, news organizations should strive to do additional reporting and provide real context, rather than using a single report as a weather vane for a large, shifting market with competing forces and conflicting signals.

The routine approach is to call an economist or real estate agent and ask what the latest figures mean. That's how we end up with conventional wisdom like “It's time to buy” and oversimplifications like “Buyers are getting off the fence.”

Consider letting others handle the commodity news while you aim for a more complete, data-driven and less anecdotal picture. Perhaps median home prices appear to be rising because expensive homes are selling, contrary to the overall market.. Maybe prices are dropping because so many of the sales are foreclosures and short sales.

Here's one way to add meaning: A recent New York Times story reported that one price index may have exaggerated price declines because it includes short sales and foreclosures — homes that probably are in bad shape. On the other hand, a price index based on refinancings most likely was too rosy because the only homes being refinanced are the ones that aren't underwater — homes that held their value better than the rest of the market.

If identifying the bottom of the market is important – for homeowners or as a general market indicator – perhaps a news app is a better approach. Show all the indicators and let people sort through them. Annotate it with experts' opinions about why they believe one indicator or another is more insightful. (The Times did a story along these lines a few years ago, but I wish it had an interactive component.)

Be wary of predictions from people who have a vested interest in the market. We have enough of that in campaign coverage, with people spinning poll numbers to portray their candidate in the best light.

Realize that anecdotes don't mean much when reporting on a single measure of a complex, shifting market. Maybe an agent is doing well because she sells entry-level homes, which are doing better than the overall market. Or perhaps she specializes in a part of town that has been more resilient.

Whether for an incremental story or one with a longer view, identify a target audience and a purpose before you do any reporting: Who is this story aimed at, and what should they do with this information?

People like me are going to use your news stories – all of them, not just the consumer-oriented ones – to make decisions. As we're pondering home ownership, news outlets should take some ownership of their housing coverage.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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