Case-Schiller Index Points to Stronger Market

Case-Shiller monthly changes March to April 2009

Last Tuesday -- for the first time in a long while -- members of the press met the monthly Case-Shiller Index data with enthusiasm. And why shouldn't they? 19 of the 20 measured markets showed a slowing pace of home price decline in April.

Here are some of the headlines about the story:

Now, the headlines feel negative, but they're actually highlighting some key strengths in April's figures. For example, nearly half of the Case-Shiller markets posted gains in April and all but one showed month-over-month improvement.

It's a step in the right direction but doesn't mean that housing has turned around for good.

We have to be careful about how we interpret the Case-Shiller Index because it's an imperfect housing gauge. The most obvious Case-Shiller flaw is that it only measures home values in 20 cities nationwide and they're not even the 20 biggest cities.

Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio and San Jose are excluded from the report and each ranks among the country's 10 most populous areas. Because of that, I usually don't like to quote the Case-Schiller Index, because we live in Philadelphia, and if our data is not included in the calculations, using it to discuss our market is an inherently flawed conversation.

That said, the report is still paid attention to nationally because the Case-Shiller Index is thought to identify broader housing trends and that helps to shape economic policy, and the idea of a single index is attractive to people writing about housing. And perhaps because this report is a positive report, and I am an inherently optimistic individual, I feel better about using the report to discuss the real estate market.

Not only versus last month but also versus last year, the pace at which home values are falling appears to be getting slower. This is the third straight month Case-Shiller has reported as such.

Now, three months makes a trend, but the data has to stay strong through the summer months to mark a bona fide turnaround. If the Case-Shiller Index shows strength for May and June, it could be the signal for which the markets have been waiting.

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