By Nin-Hai Tseng
February 10, 2011

Despite a flurry of positive data on the housing sector, it’s still too early to bank on a comeback.

Home affordability has returned to pre-bubble levels, making it perhaps one of the most sensible times in years to buy a home. In 47 of the 74 markets tracked by Moody’s Analytics, housing affordability has returned to or surpassed the average reached between 1989-2003.

Nationally, at the end of September (the latest data available), the ratio of home prices to annual household income had fallen to 1.6, well below the historical average of 1.9 between 1989 and 2003 – the year that lax lending and heavy speculation helped the housing boom take off. Certainly this is a positive development, laying the foundation for a housing recovery.

But will a return to affordability spur a home-buying frenzy?

“Based on incomes, this is as affordable as it gets,” Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi told The Wall Street Journal today. “If you can get a loan, these are pretty good times to buy.”

Zandi might sound bullish, but even he stopped short of forecasting a buying frenzy. And for good reasons. Even while it has become one of the cheapest times in a while to buy, a litany of obstacles remains.

Here are three major hurdles to a new boom in housing:

It’s still cheaper to rent in most cities. While it is more affordable to buy, consider the competition: It’s actually still cheaper to rent in most American cities these days, according to Moody’s price-to-rent ratio, which is the price of a typical home divided by the annual cost of renting that home.

Demand for rentals has been surging for some time, partly driven by record foreclosures that have put former owners in search of new places to call home. Zandi told Fortune in January that he expects the price-to-rent ratio to flip later this year, where consumers might finally find it cheaper to own again in most cities.

At this point though, renting is generally the better option. Nationally, Moody’s price-to-rent ratio stood at 14.85 at the end of September, above the 1989-2003 average of 12.

Prices are expected to drop further. Even if buying becomes the better option over renting, potential buyers will probably continue holding out. Most economists believe that home prices are projected to fall further this year — by an estimated 5% to 10% — before prices hit bottom later this year or early next. Others predict declines as high as 30%.

This isn’t very surprising, as record foreclosures have helped dramatically drive down prices. Though foreclosures have slowed some recently, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz told Bloomberg Wednesday that he expects another 2 million foreclosures in the U.S. this year. This is on top of the 7 million since the economic crisis of 2008.

Already, home values have fallen by 26% since their peak in June 2006, according to Zillow.com, an online real estate database. Indeed, further declines would make home purchases more affordable, but potential buyers are likely waiting in the sidelines for the day when prices hit bottom.

Mortgage hurdles remain. But even when home prices hit bottom, there’s the uncertainty of getting financing for the big purchase. After a period of easy lending during the boom years of 2003 to 2006, many major banks learned the hard way to tighten lending standards. With unemployment expected to stay at a relatively high 9% or more, and with many having seen their household wealth spiral, it will probably take some time before buyers can get approved for new loans.

And then there’s the uncertainty over the cost of home loans. Even though the U.S. Federal Reserve has kept interest rates at nearly zero for some time now, rates for new mortgages have steadily risen as relatively more upbeat economic data helped prompt investors to sell-off safer investments found in U.S Treasuries. Because mortgage rates are closely linked to the yield on the 10-year Treasury notes, rates have risen.

The recent rise in rates might have helped spur a modest flurry of new mortgages initially, as buyers waiting in the sidelines saw it as their last chance to lock in record-low rates. But it’s unlikely that new mortgages will flourish if rates continue to rise. Just last week for instance, the number of people applying for home loans dropped as rates jumped. The Mortgage Bankers Association said Wednesday that its overall mortgage application index fell 5.5% from the previous week. What’s more, the refinance index dropped 7.7%, while the home purchase index decreased 1.4%.

This comes as the rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage rose to 5.13% from 4.81% last week, according to the survey. The rate on the 15-year fixed loan rose to 4.29% from 4.13%.

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