The problems in housing have been a serious drag on the overall economy - slashing more than a full percentage point off growth in some quarters. And those adverse effects will get worse in coming months, many private economists believe, reflecting the fallout from the severe credit crunch that hit in August.
The betting is that the overall economy will be able to avoid a recession, but it will be a close call with the point of maximum danger still ahead.
"I think the housing market has got another year of very weak sales, falling construction and lower home prices. And all of that assumes that the economy holds together reasonably well and we don't have a recession," said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
The biggest worry is that mortgage financing problems will grow even more severe, with soaring defaults dumping more homes onto an already glutted market, driving prices down further.
In a new report, the Joint Economic Committee estimates there will be 1.3 million foreclosures from mid-2007 through 2009 in subprime mortgages, loans provided to borrowers with weak credit histories.
Those foreclosures will wipe out an estimated $71 billion in housing wealth directly and another $32 billion indirectly by lowering the values of neighboring homes, according to the report by the JEC's Democratic staff. The report predicts that will end up costing states $917 million in lost property tax revenue through the end of 2009. The states of California, New York, New Jersey and Florida are expected to be among the biggest losers.
"We are looking at a tsunami of subprime foreclosures that has been hitting subprime borrowers hard and is on track to hit prime borrowers and the economy as well by lowering property values and reducing local tax revenues," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has been lobbying the Bush administration to provide more assistance to help homeowners avoid defaulting on their mortgages.
JEC economists caution that their forecast is heavily dependent on how much home prices decline during the slump. If the downturn turns out to be worse, it will mean even bigger price declines, more foreclosures and more dollar losses in both home values and property tax collections.
Home prices have declined close to 4 percent from their peak set in early 2006, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Schiller index. David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's, believes that before the downturn is over, home prices will fall by 11 percent, according to this gauge.