Can the housing market survive on its own?

The end is in sight for some key emergency programs that helped the housing market limp along.

By Kim Peterson Feb 15, 2010 12:26PM
Home-buying guide © Ingram Publishing / SuperStockCan the housing market stand on its own, without any government assistance?

We may get the answer to that question soon, as many of the emergency programs propping up the market come to an end. Many people think the answer will be a resounding no, reports The New York Times.

In the last year, the government has given a tax credit to first-time homeowners and kept mortgage rates low. And the Federal Housing Administration backed low-money-down loans that many banks turn up their noses at, helping homebuyers without other options.

But even with those tools, look at what's happened: Default rates are high. Nearly one in six homes is "underwater." Housing prices have slumped.

As the government starts removing its support, will the situation get worse? The first thing we may see is that the Federal Reserve could end a program to buy up mortgage securities. Cutting that steady flood of money into the market may push up mortgage rates.

The tax credit is set to expire April 30, removing a key incentive for first-time homebuyers. And the FHA, in danger of its own financial crisis, is becoming more conservative about its lending.

“If the government were not to continue the same level of support, it would be very detrimental, like cutting the legs off a wobbling child and expecting it to run a marathon,” a lending officer at an Indiana credit union told the Times. “It’s very possible we’ll still be at this level of need five years from now.”

Still, the intervention has clearly skewed the market. The government walked a fine line between saving an imploding market and creating another real-estate bubble, and some critics think it's best just to let the market work out its own problems.

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