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Median single-family home price is nearing $600K in these Utah counties. Is a ‘market correction’ coming?

Gov. Spencer Cox says he fears that might be on the horizon, but experts see no bubble about to pop

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Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in Salt Lake City.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 17, 2022.

Trent Nelson

Utah’s latest sales figures are in, and they show the median sales price of single-family homes in two major Wasatch Front counties are nearing another staggering marker: $600,000.

In Salt Lake County, the median price of a single-family home hit $580,000 in February, up over 23.6% from $469,000 at the same time last year, according to the Salt Lake Board of Realtors.

In Utah County, the price is even bigger — the largest of all of Utah’s five Wasatch Front counties. There, the median single-family home price climbed to $589,450 in February, up more than 29 % from $456,563 a year ago.

It’s the latest jump in what’s been a solid two years of record-breaking price increases in Utah and the Intermountain West — with no clear end in sight even as interest rates are rising and putting even more pressure on homebuyer hopefuls in today’s persistently painful market.

Housing affordability continues to be among the state’s biggest issues, and on Thursday Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he fears “market corrections” might be what eventually lowers prices.

But there’s no telling when that might happen.

‘Market corrections’

The governor was asked during his monthly PBS Utah news conference about the latest home price figures and if Utah’s housing market is getting out of hand.

Cox, without skipping a beat, answered, “Yeah, it is.”

“There’s no question about it,” he said. “And that’s true nationally, and certainly true in the Intermountain West where we’re seeing these extraordinarily high prices.”

That’s why, Cox added, the Utah Legislature during its 2022 session passed several bills aimed at tackling Utah’s housing affordability issues.

However, the governor added he’s worried “that there are market corrections coming.”

“Certainly, there are trends that don’t look great,” Cox said, noting that the Federal Reserve upped interest rates this week for the first time since 2019, indicating there will be multiple interest rate increases to follow. That comes on the heels of billions in one-time federal COVID-19 stimulus money complicating the nation’s economy.

“So I am worried about that,” Cox said. “I’m worried about what happens as all of this federal money — this kind of fake sugar high that we’re on right now — makes its way through the system and what will happen on the back end of that.”

The governor pointed to record inflation troubling the U.S. — especially the West — and how the latest COVID-19 surge in Asia is again threatening the global supply chain.

“And not to mention war in Europe,” Cox said, pointing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“So there are certainly economic clouds on the horizon that give us pause, that we’re watching very closely and that we’ve been preparing for.”

The governor credited the Legislature for “incredible collaboration on the budget” and ensuring the state’s rainy day fund is strong.

“It is possible that those rainy days are ahead,” Cox said. “So that means, as market corrections come, that hopefully we will see housing prices come down. But we hope those housing prices can come down not at the expense of the citizens of Utah.”

How did we get here?

Record inflation was already straining Americans’ pocketbooks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and oil prices surging and spelled trouble for the global economy that had already been pummeled by two years of COVID-19.

Nationwide, the housing market has been in upheaval as the pandemic spurred many Americans to reevaluate their lives. The West, in particular, has seen a surge in in-migration from homebuyers in search of more space at lower price points.

And for high-growth, job-abundant states like Utah, that has fed demand at unprecedented levels. Having already faced a housing shortage before the pandemic hit, states like Utah are now under extraordinary housing pressures, with an inventory that’s getting squeezed dry.

February also marked the ninth consecutive month of falling home sales of all housing types in Salt Lake County, with only 949 homes sold last month — a decrease of 14% compared to 1,102 sales in the same month last year, according to the Salt Lake Board of Realtors. The board attributed the drop in sales to “limited inventory, higher home prices, and fewer move-up buyers.”

“The last time home sales fell over an extended period was in 2007, the start of the Great Recession,” the board said in a news release Thursday. “In 2007, home sales in Salt Lake County plunged 27%. The falling sales and substantial layoffs triggered a four-year decline in home prices in Salt Lake County (2008-2011). Since 2012, home prices in Salt Lake County have been on the rise. For Utah to experience a housing bubble in the near term, it would require a loss of jobs — an unlikely prospect in the next few years.”

The supply vs. demand dilemma is why housing experts see no indicators of a bubble about to pop — although in Utah they have warned of a “severely imbalanced” housing market as demand continues to woefully outpace supply. So long as that continues, Utah will see price increases, and rising interest rates likely won’t stop price increases, only slow them.

Other economic factors are at play, and how much of an impact global economic conditions have on the U.S.’s housing market — and Utah’s housing market — remains to be seen.

So when will a so-called “market correction” actually happen? That’s a big question mark.

What is Utah doing to help housing?

During its 2022 general session that ended earlier this month, Utah lawmakers allocated a record $70 million for housing and homelessness programs, including $15 million for housing preservation. But that figure still fell far short of the $128 million Cox recommended in his budget for housing and homelessness programs.

“I appreciate the Legislature’s work in helping to pass bills that we believe will increase supply and in turn reduce housing prices,” Cox said.

Pressed by a reporter on whether the smaller funding amount was a missed opportunity for lawmakers, Cox said he “obviously” would have “loved” the Legislature to adopt all of his budget recommendations, “but I’m not going to complain about the money that we got.” He called the $70 million “very generous” and a “historic number.”

That $70 million is on top of the$50 million the Legislature set aside for housing and homelessness initiatives in 2021. Cox noted that some of those funds that were approved last year “still haven’t been spent yet.”

“So let’s see how we do,” Cox said. “They absolutely need to hold us responsible and make sure we are using the funds in a way that makes a difference.”