Housing will eventually recover from its great swoon. But many real estate experts now believe that home ownership will never again yield rewards like those enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century, when houses not only provided shelter but also a plump nest egg.
The wealth generated by housing in those decades, did more than assure the owners a comfortable retirement. It powered the economy, paying for the education of children and grandchildren, keeping the cruise ships.
"There is no iron law that real estate must appreciate," said Stan Humphries, chief economist for the real estate site Zillow. "All those theories advanced during the boom about why housing is special - that more people are choosing to spend more on housing, that more people are moving to the coasts, that we were running out of usable land — didn't hold up."
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, estimates that it will take 20 years to recoup the $6 trillion of housing wealth that has been lost since 2005. After adjusting for inflation, values will never catch up.
Housing experts are bracing themselves for Tuesday, when the sales figures for July will be released.
The supply of homes sitting on the market might rise to as much as 12 months, about twice the level of a healthy market. That would push down prices as all those sellers compete to secure a buyer, adding to a slide that has already chopped off as much as 30 per cent in home values.
Set against this dismal present and a bleak future, buying a home is a willful act of optimism. That explains why Adam and Allison Lyons are waiting to close on a $417,500 house in Deerfield, Ill.
"We're trying not to think too far ahead," said Lyons, 35, an IT manager. The couple's first venture into real estate came in 2003 when they bought a condo in a 17-unit building under construction in Chicago. By the time they moved in two years later, it was already worth $50,000 more than they had paid.
That quick appreciation started them on the same track as their parents, who watched the value of their houses ascend for decades. The real estate crash interrupted that pleasant dream. The couple cannot sell their condo. Unwillingly, they are becoming landlords.
In exclusive partnership with The New York Times.