Like the old real-estate adage, "Location, location, location," we have only one question these days. We just ask it different ways. "Are we in a..."

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Like the old real-estate adage, “Location, location, location,” we have only one question these days. We just ask it different ways.

“Are we in a housing bubble?”

“Will home values decline?”

“Did I pay too much?”

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The attention is no surprise: Housing is our most widely owned asset. We’re all stakeholders in this. Another reason is the incredible stories coming out of places like San Diego, Northern California, West Florida and Miami.

A Florida reader wrote to tell me about the options he had on Florida condos and how he wouldn’t go near anything as dangerous as the stock market again because he had been burned so bad in the Internet bubble.

What that tells me, even if it escapes him, is that his habits of investing haven’t changed but the venue has. To me, California, Florida and much of New England look like a replay of Texas in the ’80s.

A collapse in oil prices changed a formerly high-flying real-estate market. By the time it was over, the spine of Texas, Interstate 35, was littered with manufactured home repos from Dallas to San Antonio. Virtually every financial institution in the state was busted. Dallas, Houston and Austin condo prices plummeted: There is no market when you ask people to pay cash because there are no lenders.

So here’s a question: If the stories and magazine covers aren’t enough, is there any broad statistical evidence of excess?

Yes. One indicator, cited in a recent issue of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, is the dollar volume of home sales divided by gross domestic product. The figure for 2004 was a near record, nearly three standard deviations greater than the average of the past 35 years.

Others can be found in a regular report from the Federal Reserve, the “Balance Sheet of Households and Non-Profit Institutions,” one of the many sections of the quarterly Flow of Funds.

If you examine these figures, you learn that our collective net worth declined from 1999 (no surprise there) and bottomed in 2002. You also learn that we had fully recovered by 2003 and that we’ve gained $9.4 trillion in net worth — nearly 25 percent — from the 2002 bottom.

The largest source of gain? Home values, up $4 trillion. (This compares with a $1.3 trillion gain in the value of corporate equities and a $1.3 trillion gain in the value of mutual funds.)

As I said, we’re all stakeholders in this.

But let’s go back further.

Examining the same data back to 1952, I found that:

• Residential homes are the highest percentage of our collective net worth they have ever been, 36.3 percent.

• We have been borrowing at a prodigious rate, with mortgages equal to 43.7 percent of home value. That’s only a bit less than the record 44.2 percent set in 2004.

• We reached a record for the value of homes compared to the value of our financial assets, 48.5 percent.

Compared to the median values of the past 50 years, these are big shifts. Viewed statistically, values are at extremes.

The bottom line: Collectively, we’re heavily mortgaged in a period of extreme prices. The return to more normal prices could be as painful at the Great Texas Real Estate Crash.

Questions about personal finance and investments may be sent to Scott Burns at The Dallas Morning News, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265; by fax at 214-977-8776; or by e-mail at scott@scottburns.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns.