The Four Phases of the Real Estate Cycle:
“The next major bust, 18 years after the 1990 downturn, will be around 2008, if there is no major interruption such as a global war.” — Fred E. Foldvary (1997)
If you want to read the ups and downs of the housing market, there may be no better place to turn than the venerable halls of Harvard University to check in with some of the most noted economics and real estate minds in the world.
Just like the cycle of any market, what we do know is inevitable – some call it a downturn or a correction; others a bubble or even a crash – is that what comes up must come down, and then up again.
In fact, these same Harvard economists accurately predicted the financial crash in 2008, or at least the timing of it if not the severity. They didn’t know some complex algorithm or hidden financial secret that the rest of us don’t, they just understood one thing: that any real estate market cycle goes through four phases.
In fact, as early as 1876 an economist named Henry George noted that all real estate cycles move through four phases.
Understanding these market shifts, what causes them and what happens next can empower the average person to make incredibly wise decisions about their real estate holdings far ahead of the curve of public sentiment or knowledge.
Imagine if you had sold all of your property in 2007 before the historic crash? What would it look like if you had kept liquid in anticipation of the Great Recession and had the means to snatch up properties so discounted the banks almost couldn’t give them away? If you knew these signs of a housing market ready to expand and appreciate wildly, you could certainly take advantage of that and when you could ascertain the warning signs that the roller coaster was at its peak and about to go on a wild ride, you could sell, sell, sell way ahead of your unsuspecting and vulnerable neighbors.
Believe it or not, all of that information is readily available. So when will the next real estate crash happen? Read on to find out!
Phase I of the real estate cycle
Having gone through the dark days of the last economic downturn, we all understand the characteristics of a recession, at least anecdotally. Recessions are characterized by:
Decreased levels of consumer consumption
Downturn in corporate investment and expansion into buildings, factories, machinery, etc.
The price of land is depressed. In fact, property and real estate are at their lowest value any time during the four-phase cycle.
But during this phase, the population doesn’t stop increasing, and that means a higher demand for goods and services.
The government typically intervenes during this phase, aiming to spark the economic recovery in the form of lowered interest rates.
While demand inevitably marches on and the cost of borrowing money and investing is lower than ever, smart companies start looking to expand their businesses. There might be some small businesses that have to close their doors, but the larger corporations see this valley as a golden opportunity to expand and snatch up invaluable market share.
This expansion includes hiring new employees, building new factories, plants, stores, etc., and investing in new technology, machinery and infrastructure.
At the latter end of this phase, the extreme rates of vacant offices, retail spaces, plants, and homes starts to decrease. There is just too much inventory, prices and interest rates too low, and demand too high for economic expansion not to start in earnest.
Phase II of the real estate cycle
The real estate market leaves Phase I and enters Phase II of the cycle once companies and consumers have started to purchase or rent most of the available properties, easily tracked by low vacancy rates and shrinking inventory. In fact, occupancy rates surpass long-term averages during this period.
With vacant or available properties becoming far scarcer, opportunistic landlords start to raise rents. Most real estate expenses are fixed so their revenues and profits also increase with these inflated rents. With rents unprecedentedly high, buying vacant land or existing properties for development is more attractive than ever.
New construction and development begins to boom, but the problem is that these projects could take a long time to get underway and reach completion – sometimes several years. In fact, the average new development takes two to five years to finish. So we still have strong demand but supply to fill that demand can’t be built or developed fast enough, resulting in increased upward pressure on rents, land and housing prices.
So by the time this new supply becomes readily available, the climate of high demand, high rates, low occupancy rates, low interest rates and low supply has been active for five to seven years, a period of robust economic expansion.
But very soon, people start overpaying for existing homes, land and properties. “Investors” and consumers alike start basing the price their willing to pay on the scarcity of supply and the anticipated growth of rent and housing prices – not actual market conditions.
This is a critical point in the real estate cycle where perception of future growth outpaces the facts, and setting up the perfect storm of conditions for the next phase in real estate – the boom, the bubble, or, as economists call it, hyper-supply.
Tune in for part two of this blog coming soon where we examine the two remaining phases of every real estate cycle – and share these Harvard economists’ predictions for exactly when we’ll see the next real estate downturn.