Putin could make housing even more expensive for American buyers who are already getting crushed

March 3, 2022, 5:57 PM UTC

The consequences of the Ukraine conflict are rippling through the global economy. The U.S. housing market is no exception.

Should U.S. homebuyers expect similar shocks to those that have roiled financial markets worldwide?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week immediately sent markets worldwide into a volatile frenzy, which has magnified insecurity and could lead to reduced spending. But it is still unclear whether the conflict in Ukraine will lead to higher home prices for Americans.

The early months of 2022 have not been easy for prospective homebuyers—just like basically all of 2021. A combination of low inventory and record demand for new homes has led to prices skyrocketing. Some key commodities for new home construction, such as lumber, have reached record-high price levels, and experts predict home prices to rise by as much as 22% this spring. The definitive CoreLogic housing index found that last summer’s jump in home price growth was the largest in over 45 years.

So far, it is unclear how the situation in Ukraine will affect housing in the U.S. “The impact on the U.S. housing markets from the Russia-Ukraine conflict has been muted so far,” George Ratiu, manager of economic research at Realtor.com, told Fortune. 

But other experts say an escalation of both the conflict and of geopolitical tensions could change all that very quickly.

Oil and energy prices

A major consequence of the Ukraine crisis has clearly been energy prices, which have been soaring since news of the invasion broke.

“Where [the effects of the Ukraine crisis] may show up is with oil and energy prices,” said Tom LaSalvia, senior economist and housing sector specialist at financial services firm Moody’s Analytics. 

LaSalvia said he sees energy prices as being the harbinger of any shifts in the U.S. housing market, on both the demand and supply side.

“If the conflict continues, and if those energy prices remain elevated for quite a while, this is going to have potential effects that I think can knock on toward the housing market,” LaSalvia said.

Since the invasion began, energy prices have skyrocketed. A week after the conflict started, oil prices have soared to over $110 a barrel, which makes trivial things like driving a car or heating a home much more expensive for everyday consumers. Recently, prices shot past $120, and if the West decouples from Russian energy the way it has from other businesses, that could well shoot higher.

LaSalvia argues that higher energy prices could make consumers even more apprehensive about making big purchases, in an economy in which consumer sentiment has already fallen to record lows, according to a recent survey by the University of Michigan. The primary driver of pessimistic consumer sentiment in today’s economy has been the 40-year-high inflation that has impacted the country in the early months of 2022.

“It’s more on these knock-on effects through the economy, I think, that’s the mechanism there,” LaSalvia said. “And then all of those things—energy prices, inflation, the apprehensive consumers—are going to ultimately affect what households are going to do in terms of housing.”

Ratiu agrees that oil and energy could be big factors on the housing front if prices stay elevated.

“Higher gasoline prices translate into higher commuting and transportation costs for American consumers,” he said. “The rise in gas prices comes at a time of rising overall inflation, with families paying more for food, clothing, cars, and health care. For many families, oil prices are adding to the monthly financial burden and leading to difficult choices.”

Supply-side troubles

If oil prices remain elevated, as LaSalvia thinks is likely, higher energy costs and a longer conflict could combine to power their way into the supply side of the housing market as well.

“When you have elevated oil prices, that works its way through commodities and ultimately into construction,” he said. “It’s higher distribution and shipping costs, higher lumber. It’s all of those things that end up getting pushed into other commodities, which then ultimately affect the supply side of the equation.”

The U.S. housing market has already been dealing with historically low inventory despite a rising demand for new homes, leading to a crunched real estate market with exorbitant prices.

Ratiu agreed that an escalation of the crisis in Europe could lead to even more constrained supply chains, which could eventually lead to higher prices on the housing front.

Over the past few months, Ratiu noted, “builders have been ramping up the pace of new construction, working to meet the strong housing demand of a rising demographic cohort.” But he cautioned that “while the Russia-Ukraine conflict has been restrained geographically to Eastern Europe, a prolonged conflict and the broader economic sanctions have the potential to negatively impact geopolitical alliances, as well as trade routes, which could have a spillover effect on supply chains.”

The situation in Russia and Ukraine is creating significant uncertainty, but for now, experts are reticent about changing their forecasts for the spring housing market, despite acknowledging that the future is more unpredictable than it was before.

“We’re not dramatically changing any of our baseline forecasts for this year, but the distribution of what could happen has widened,” LaSalvia said. “That’s really where we are right now in this crisis: The level of uncertainty has grown.”

Finally, LaSalvia noted that in times of uncertainty, U.S. real estate is a rare safe haven for international wealth. “There is evidence that when there are global issues, global investors look toward the U.S. not only for Treasuries, but also toward the purchase of property.” Maybe even some wealthy Russians could drive U.S. housing prices higher?

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