It’s usually around this time of year, with the holiday season firmly in the rearview mirror, that homebuyers and sellers alike begin to make their way back into the market. That will continue to pick up each week until March arrives. At that point, the industry’s busy season—known as the spring real estate market—will be off to the races.
But this year there is more unease than excitement coming from the home shopper side of the equation. For one thing, last year’s spring housing market, which was arguably the fiercest in history, is still seared into the collective memories of unsuccessful 2021 home shoppers. To understand how far the deck was stacked against buyers last year, just look at the data. The number of homes for sale last spring hit the lowest level in more than 40 years. Bidding wars hit an all-time high—with 72% of homes getting multiple offers in April 2021. And that frenzy saw home appreciation climb to the highest level in tabulated history.
That raises a question: Should homebuyers expect to find a spring housing market in 2022 that is friendlier when compared with 2021? After all, the rate of home price growth over the past year—up 19.1% between October 2020 and October 2021—just can’t be sustained forever.
To get an indication of what the housing market will look like during the early months of 2021, we looked at the one metric housing economists repeatedly told Fortune last year to watch heading into the spring market: housing inventory. At the height of the spring 2021 bidding war bonanza, the number of homes for sale was 43% below pre-pandemic levels. Given that the demand side of the market is unlikely to back off much—there’s simply too many millennials aging into their first-home buying years—the supply side (a.k.a. inventory) will dictate what the spring 2022 housing market will look like.
To be blunt, the latest reading of housing inventory levels doesn’t look good for would-be homebuyers. As of December, there were just 1 million homes listed for sale on Zillow. That’s down 17.5% from December 2020, and down 37.8% from December 2019, when there were nearly 1.7 million homes for sale. This means the housing market is tighter right now than it was heading into the hypercompetitive 2021 spring housing market.
Simply put: Home shoppers should expect more heartache—not relief.
As the 2021 spring market came to a conclusion last year, industry insiders hoped inventory levels would begin to rise. Through the summer and fall, inventory did finally begin to tick up a bit (see the chart above). The theory was that as vaccines rolled out, more elderly homeowners who were cautious about moving during the pandemic would finally put their homes up for sale. Economists also predicted the September 2021 winding down of the forbearance program for homeowners negatively impacted by the pandemic would see more homes come on to the market. While the number of homes listed for sale did rise, it hasn’t been enough to make the market friendly for homebuyers.
This lack of inventory isn’t just clustered into a handful of housing markets, either. Among the 327 housing markets tracked by Zillow, 254 have inventory levels that are down by more than 30% between December 2019 and December 2021. In 54 housing markets, including places like Miami and Fort Collins, Colo., housing inventory is still down by over 50% from pre-pandemic levels.
There is one big wild card right now.
The inflation-concerned Federal Reserve is expected to increase rates several times in 2022. That is already pushing mortgage rates higher. As of Thursday, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate has hit 3.45%. That’s up from 3.1% last month, and a hefty bounce from the 2.65% rate in January 2021. Rising mortgage rates would lock some homebuyers out of the market and could put downward pressure on home price growth.
But in the short term, rising mortgage rates could actually make the housing market even more competitive. Ali Wolf, chief economist at Zonda, a housing market research firm, tells Fortune that home shoppers—who could see this as their last chance to snag pandemic-spurred low mortgage rates—might begin to pour into the housing market in the coming weeks. Of course, a rush of homebuyers into a market with already depleted levels of inventory would be a perfect storm for another spike in bidding wars.