The Case-Schiller Home Price Index is available for a number of markets around the US. This index tracks the repeat sales of single family homes, and thus serves as a unique measure of changes in house prices across time, without distortions from new development, changes in sales mix, etc. A detailed discussion of the index methodology is available in PDF format (here). From this document:
The S&P/Case-Shiller® Home Price Indices are designed to be a reliable and consistent benchmark of housing prices in the United States. Their purpose is to measure the average change in home prices in a particular geographic market. They are calculated monthly and cover 20 major metropolitan areas (Metropolitan Statistical Areas or MSAs), which are also aggregated to form two composites – one comprising 10 of the metro areas, the other comprising all 20. The indices measure changes in housing market prices given a constant level of quality. Changes in the types and sizes of houses or changes in the physical characteristics of houses are specifically excluded from the calculations to avoid incorrectly affecting the index value.
The historical indices go back to 1987, and are available in Excel fromat from Standard & Poor's (here). I've extracted and plotted the data for the Boston MSA to emphasize a few points. The Boston MSA consists of these counties: Essex MA, Middlesex MA, Norfolk MA, Plymouth MA, Suffolk MA, Rockingham NH, and Strafford NH. Here's how prices in this MSA have behaved since 1987:
The prices are indexed to a value of 100 in January 2000, thus this plot shows relative price changes indexed to that date. Interestingly, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) now allows futures trading based on this index (here). The last five bars in the plot correspond to the contract prices for futures over the next 5 quarters, recorded on 3/12/07. The predictive value of these contracts are suspect, given that they are thinly traded, but they do give some indication if where bets are being placed.
This plot makes clear the previous bear market starting in 1989, followed by a slow recovery, eventual multi-year bull, and the current bear market beginning in 2006.
Zooming in on the end of the last bull run, one can see the growing downtrend in prices (trending at -5% yoy for the most recent available data), and the CME futures for the next five quarters. Clearly, little immediate recovery is anticipated in the futures market, which are predicting continued deprectiation in SFH prices at around -5% yoy through next winter.An interesting comparison can be made by examining the YOY % Change in the CS HPI for Boston MSA starting in the last bull year of each cycle (1988 and 2005). Here the black bars report % price changes in the 1988-1991 window, and the yellow bars % price changes so far since 2005, with the CME futures also included.
One striking point that comes out of this side by side comparison is how much sharper the onset of the current bear market in SFH prices has been relative to the last cycle (note that the comparison for condos would likely result in the opposite conclusion). Thus far the CME futures are not predicting anything like the severe price drops observed over the fall/winter of 1990-91. For reference, the light blue shading represents the early 90's recession which coincided with the depths of the bear real estate market. Given all the recent talk about recessions, it is interesting to ponder how the current cycle would fare in a similar scenario. It is also interesting to note that during the last bear market recovery, the yearly change in the Boston MSA CS Index did not exceed 5% until 1997, 5 years beyond the end of this plot. A long and slow recovery indeed.