The housing market bottom in 1997


Like the change of seasons, real estate markets move in cycles. During the last cycle, the real estate market peaked in 1990, and the market bottomed in 1997. The primary reason the bottom formed was because incomes and rents finally caught up to housing prices.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.These images are both from 1997. The first appears to be from a condo development in Orange. The actual pricing is not important: the relationship between the cost of a rental and the cost of ownership is very important. This is why the bottom formed.


The next time someone tries to convince you the cost of ownership is near the cost of rental, remember the simple calculation above. If someone has to apply rental increase rates, inflation rates, appreciation rates, tax benefits and other complicated nonsense to make the numbers work, the numbers really don’t work. (Notice the simple numbers above work without the tax benefits figured in.)

As a rule, the use of advanced math to justify a house purchase is mental masturbation designed to make someone feel good about an emotional decision they already made. When the calculation above works, it will be time to buy, and not until then.

Since I began writing on this blog, I have stated I will buy when the cost of ownership equals the cost of rental. An advertisement like this — when it reflects reality — would motivate me to buy. How about you?

It has been suggested as prices drop people will perceive a bargain and start buying. This is true. This is where all the knife catchers come from. There are simply not enough of these people to support the market, particularly a market dominated by foreclosures like ours is going to be shortly.

Why aren’t there enough knife catchers to support the market? Knife catchers are not buying because of the numbers, they are buying because of their emotions. Everyone is not going to get emotional at the same price point; thus, no support zone will form at any particular price point.

However, everyone who can do math will see when it is cheaper to own than to rent, and many rational people will act at the same time and at the same price levels. The collective actions of you, me and other like-minded individuals responding to these market conditions provides the market activity and transaction volume necessary to form a market bottom. It will not form before then.

So how much were properties in Irvine going for in 1997?


For all of you number crunchers out there that want to find the bottom of our current bubble, start with the pricing in 1997, and add 4% per year for inflation and wage growth (although wage growth has only been 3% per year.) Since I really like quick multipliers to simplify the math, below is a table to help:

1997 1.00
1998 1.04
1999 1.08
2000 1.12

2001 1.17
2002 1.22
2003 1.27
2004 1.32
2005 1.37
2006 1.42
2007 1.48
2008 1.54
2009 1.60
2010 1.67
2011 1.73
2012 1.80
2013 1.87
2014 1.95
2015 2.03
2016 2.11
2017 2.19

From this table you can see how much more a 1997 house should cost projected into the future. In 2007, a house purchased in 1997 should be 48% (1.48 times) higher. Pricing will intersect these values at some point, and when it does, we will be at the bottom.



I created the chart above in March for the post: Predictions for the Irvine Housing Market. I thought I was being somewhat aggressive in my predictions of such large quarterly losses. Such large declines are unprecedented. If the credit market is as challenging as it appears, the drop to fundamental valuations may be faster and more violent than anyone could have guessed. We will see.

In the end, the bottom will form because it will be less expensive to own than to rent, and everyone who watched houses depreciate from the peak will find the motivation to buy. We might overshoot fundamental valuations based on rental equivalent (which seems to be where the credit crunch may take us) and drop down to levels where properties produce a positive cashflow for investors. That chart is really ugly…