Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Mar 28, 2024

U.S. Housing: Will Lower Fees Mean Higher Sales?


James Egan: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Jim Egan, co-head of Securitized Products Research at Morgan Stanley.

Jay Bacow: And I'm Jay Bacow, the other co-head of Securitized Products Research.

James Egan: And on this episode of the podcast, we'll be discussing some proposed changes to the US housing market. It's Thursday, March 28th, at 1pm in New York.

Jay Bacow: Jim, two weeks ago, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) settled a case that could fundamentally change how commissions are paid to brokers. Acknowledging that there's a few months until this is all going to get approved, it looks like sellers are no longer going to have to compensate buyers’ agents. Which means that the closing cost that sellers have to pay is going to come down from the current 5 to 6 per cent to brokers to something more in the context of 3.5 to 4 percent -- based on estimates from many economists. What does this mean for the housing market?

James Egan: So, this is certainly a settlement worth paying attention to.

There are a lot of moving pieces here, but some of our first thoughts. Look, if we're lowering the ultimate transaction costs when it comes to selling homes, we do think that -- all else equal and probably a little bit more into the future -- it's going to lead to a higher volume of transactions. Or a higher level of turnover in the housing market.

Now sellers no longer having to compensate buyers’ agents. That becoming something that buyers will need to do -- that could, at least from a perception perspective, increase the cost for buyers at a place, where we're already at one of our least affordable points in several decades. So, when we think about an increased level of transaction volumes; if that means, especially in the near term, or especially where we are right now, a little bit of an increase in for-sale inventory, combined with some of the affordability issues -- maybe it weighs a little bit on home prices. But our bottom line here is we think from a home price perspective, largely unchanged here. From a transaction volume perspective, all else equal, you could see a little bit of a pickup.

Jay Bacow: All right. But Jim, haven't you been calling for some of the story already with increased housing activity, causing home prices to end 2024 slightly below 2023. Does this then change the narrative at all?

James Egan: No, I don't think this changes the narrative. If we go back into that call just a little bit, our call for the marginal decrease in year over year home price growth was driven by growth in for-sale inventory this year. We're seeing that steady growth in existing listings over the past couple of months.

Now, the most recent housing start print was also positive from this perspective. Single unit housing starts were up for the eighth month in a row and have now increased 11 per cent from their local lows, which were in June of 2023. I think it's also worth pointing out over that same time frame, five plus unit starts, multi-unit housing, they're down in almost every single one of those months -- all but one of them. And they're down 19 per cent from that same month, June of 2023. But that's probably something for another podcast.

Jay Bacow Alright. Well, I think there's two more things we should include in this podcast. First, this settlement isn't the only factor that could increase housing activity. Recently, around the State of the Union [address], President Biden announced a number of plans that could also contribute.

Now, some of them require congressional approval, including a $10,000 middle-income first-time homebuyer tax credit. And then a separate $10,000 tax credit to middle class families that would sell their home below the median income in the county to help account for some of these lock-in effects that you mentioned.

Jay Bacow: However, he also announced a pilot program that would eliminate total insurance fees for some low-risk refinance transactions. And that one doesn't require congressional approval; it's getting put in place as we speak, and that would save homeowners about $750 in closing costs on a refinance.

James Egan:  Interesting. So, if I'm hearing you correctly, the ones that would require congressional approval, they're more on the -- what we would call housing activity side: sales, purchase volumes. Whereas the one that didn't was on the refinance side. Now, presumably there's not much refinance activity going on right now.

Jay Bacow: That's a correct presumption. Right now, we estimate that only about 3 per cent of homeowners have a critical incentive to refinance 25 basis points versus a prevailing mortgage rate. So, this is going to matter a lot more if we rally in rates. Realistically, we think we need a mortgage rate to get closer to 5 per cent than the current level for this to really matter.

But I imagine that's probably a similar case with the NAR settlement as well.

James Egan:  Exactly. And that's why I made a point to say, all else equal, we think this is going to lead to a higher volume of transactions or a higher turnover rate in the housing market. It's because of that lock-in effect. Right now, so much of the homeowning distribution is well below the prevailing mortgage rate, that any real impacts of this we think are just going to be on the margins.

Jay Bacow: Alright, so there's a lot of changes are coming to the housing market. They're likely to impact the market more if rates rally and are more of the back half of the year, next year event than this summer.

Jim, thanks for taking the time to talk.

James Egan: Great speaking with you, Jay.

Jay Bacow: And thanks for listening.

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A landmark settlement with the National Association of Realtors will change the way brokers are paid commissions. How would this affect people looking to buy or sell homes? Our co-heads of Securitized Products Research discuss.