Over the next year, experts say, the trajectory of home prices will vary widely from region to region, state to state and city to city. For example, home values in Minneapolis are expected to increase 21 percent by 2018, while prices in Austin, Texas, are projected to rise 8 percent, according to Moody's Economy.com.
"You need to look at the long-term economic prospects for your area. Not even just the housing market. What does job growth look like projected out? What does the population growth look like?" said Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a consumer educator for trulia.com.
In general, markets with a diverse and varied economy are more likely to see the job and population growth that fuels home-value appreciation over the long term.
Do your homework
With so many resources available for house hunters, it's easy to get overwhelmed by an avalanche of information. Start by using online research tools such as Zillow, Realtor.com and Trulia to get a broad sense of your market. Consider hiring a real estate agent with expert knowledge of the local community, but don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.
"People should get more assertive about the (do-it-yourself) research and preparation they want to do," Nelson said. "We're seeing regular homebuyers with spreadsheets. It's not that they're not looking to their professionals for advice, they just want to make sure they feel comfortable with it on their own."
After looking at the big picture, drill down to more specific metrics by neighborhood, such as how long a home has been on the market, list-price-to-sell-price ratios of comparable properties and the percentage of listings in a given market with price reductions.
Although it's advantageous to have a good feel for your market, the decision should correlate more with personal goals than national trends or local statistics.
"You have to make your real estate decisions and decide on your strategy based on your personal life and family vision more than anything that's going on in the market," Nelson said.
Plan to stay put
During the housing boom, homeowners were virtually guaranteed to make money, or at least break even, on their property regardless of how long they owned it. But the luxury of rapid price appreciation is another casualty of the financial crisis and housing market collapse. These days, prospective buyers should avoid purchasing a home unless they plan to stick around for at least five years.
"People need to buy today because they're buying the family home," said Helfant-Browning. "This is not buying an investment you're going to live in for a year and flip. People need to be in five, seven or eight years to break even."
That length of time could be longer in particularly hard-hit markets, Nelson said.
"It used to be you could count on whenever you bought (a home), you'd be able to turn it around at, or more than, what you paid for it," she said. "Now, the more hard hit your market has been by the real estate recession, the longer you should be comfortable staying put. The most powerful thing you can do to avoid locking in losses on your home is to plan to stay in it a long time."
Home prices are expected to appreciate slower than in the past, so the direction of your career, and the location where you think you'll ultimately end up, are important factors in deciding whether to buy.
"We've seen a lot of people struggling with mobility concerns around careers right now," Nelson said. "You really want to know what your career path and trajectory is going to look like for the next five, seven, 10 years, and if you're feeling like you need to be able to move around the country for work, then buying now is not the right idea."
While the housing market might look gloomy, experts say the financial advantages of home ownership remain.
"If you're going to pay to live in something every month, why not own it?" Helfant-Browning said. "By getting a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, 10 years from now when the rents in the community are usually going to be substantially higher, the only thing that will change for you is your homeowners insurance and your real estate tax."
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