http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2005/08/21/business/21real.graphic.html

This is a graph of historical housing prices relative to inflation since 1890.  The graph is indexed to inflation so you are seeing the bubble in house prices above and beyond inflation. 

The take home message to this graph is the following.  Take a look at the average home value over the past 100 odd years.  It seems to average somewhere around $112,000.  Now look at the peak which is somewhere around $180,000.  Dividing through we get a ‘bubble-factor’ = 180/112 = 1.6 .  What that means to you is that if you own a house currently valued at $500,000, if the bubble corrects you’ll actually own a $312,500 house (500/1.6 = 312.5).

Will the bubble correct?  Historically bubbles do one of two things:  1) they correct or 2) they flatten and wait for inflation to catch up with them.  What will this bubble do?  I can’t tell you and neither can any of the supposed experts. 

What caused this bubble?  The Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to as low as 1%.  This flooded the market with money which people invested in housing, since the internet bubble had burst. 

Who benefits from this bubble?  This bubble benefits 3 groups of people, bankers, the recently dead, and people with in laws.  Bankers make huge profits on the the inflated mortgages people must now take out to put a roof over their head.  Those who have recently died (since we’re at the peak of the bubble) benefit as their estate sells their property at the inflated price with record profit.  Hopefully they have children to benefit from the heavily taxed inheritance.  Regrettably, if they don’t have children to pass the benefit on to, then it’ll be hard to enjoy their windfall, being dead and all. 

If you’re alive you never benefit from this type of bubble.  People typically want to move up, that is move to a better home.  Thus you have to sell your current home and move to a better home.  Thus, you make a profit on the sale, but take a hit on the inflated purchase.  Basically it’s like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, and it all ends up even in the wash. 

If you have in laws and can sell at the inflated price and move in with your in laws (avoiding having to buy an inflated property) you may benefit from the bubble by waiting for it to bottom out, if indeed it does.  Living with your in laws may allow you to sell high and buy low, but that assumes the bubble corrects and moreover, living with your parents you may wish you were recently dead.

Who suffers from this bubble?  The most notable group of people to suffer are the first time home buyers.  Entering the market at the peak you’ll be paying 1.6 times what you should hadn’t the bubble occured.  Ultimately all property owners suffer because the bubble leads them to think that they have more money than they actually do.