There are many of measures of the housing market's health. And for nearly three years now, the news has been consistently grim.
Low prices are great if you're buying. But for people trying to break even or just minimize their losses on a sale, this market remains maddening.
For three years, Peggy and John Palumbo have been trying to sell their house in the St. Paul suburb of Roseville. It's a comfortable ranch-style close to both downtowns. There's a pond, a yard with trees, and a big kitchen-family room covered in warm wood paneling. The Palumbos built the house a decade ago, doing much of the work themselves.
"We did all the insulation, the roof, the tongue and groove on the great room here," John Palumbo said. "Wood flooring, tile."
The Palumbos both work full time, they have three sons, they're healthy, life is good. But they dreamed of opening an Italian cafe using the profits they made from selling the house.
So, they put their house on the market, thinking they could come out ahead on the deal. They were wrong. The housing crash hit them hard.
“The biggest problem is we have an excessively large number of homes waiting to be sold.”George Karvel, real estate professor
"It's almost embarrassing now," Peggy said. "We listed it for $349,000, and it was right as things were starting to tank. And ... we kept going down and down to $279,000 was our final, and that would have been a little money at closing."
They got nothing more than nibbles from potential buyers. They even tried swapping houses with another couple, but that deal fell through.
The Palumbos have plenty of company. The latest numbers from the Minneapolis Association of Realtors show sellers are getting only about 91 percent of their original listing price. That's a cut of nearly $17,000 for a home selling at the past year's median price of about $165,000, the lowest since the housing bubble burst.
University of St. Thomas real estate professor George Karvel says it all comes down to Economics 101: There's too much supply and not enough demand. New listings are down 15 percent from year-ago levels.
"The biggest problem is we have an excessively large number of homes waiting to be sold," Karvel said.
Karvel says, with people fearing more price drops, there's a reluctance to buy. Most who can afford a home already have one, he says, and they're staying put.
But Karvel says all the foreclosed homes on the market are what's really pushing prices down. Though banks have eased up lately, 40 percent of sales last month in the Twin Cities were lender-owned properties. And there's still uncertainty in the foreclosure market.
While it's easy to count the number of foreclosures now, Karvel says there's no way to tell how many financially troubled homes lenders will push onto the market.
"The part that we can't get a handle on is how many homes are delinquent that will be foreclosed upon, and consequently come to the market at some point in the future," Karvel said.
The research firm RealtyTrac says there were about 7,500 Minnesota homes at some stage of foreclosure in the first three months of the year. But RealtyTrac says not all of those homes will wind up in foreclosure.
Though more foreclosures are possible, Twin Cities real estate agent and blogger Aaron Dickinson says there are reasons to be optimistic.
He says housing is a lagging indicator in the economy. And as employment and consumer confidence numbers improve, the market may stabilize. Another good sign, Dickinson says, is that there are fewer homes for sale.
"Our inventory numbers are down substantially, and that's been falling every year for the last three or four years now," Dickinson said. "And because of that, as supply tightens and demand firms up, we start to see a market that comes into balance."
Dickinson also says the market for rental housing is getting squeezed, and that may convince some renters to consider home ownership.
But the big lesson any new buyers should take away from the last three years -- say Peggy and John Palumbo -- is one they learned the hard way. A home is more a place to hang your hat than a reliable financial asset.
"On the one hand, to watch it all vaporize was tough. But then again, being in this home has been such a great thing for our boys and ourselves that it's hard to cry too much about it," John said.
Peggy added, "There are certainly people worse off than us, for sure."
While it's impossible to tell if we've reached the end of the global housing bust, the Palumbos appear to have weathered it. They're going to start that Italian cafe they've dreamed about for 15 years. But they're financing it with a loan --instead of the profits from selling their house.