Extra! Extra! Home Prices Flat!

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You might have noticed the confusion of headlines today, ranging from "Home Prices Up," according to the Associated Press to "Home Prices Dip," according to Reuters.

What's going on? All of these presumably intelligent journalists are looking at the same report, S&P's Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index for November. You'd think they could agree on what it says.

The truth of the matter is the index has stayed about the same since August. The shift in November is so small that it can be read as either rising or falling, depending on whether you adjust for the season.With no seasonal adjustment, the 20-city index was at 146.28 in November. That's down slightly from 146.60 in October, which was down slightly from 146.71 in September, which was up (slightly) from 146.16 in August.

Or, to put it another way, Case-Shiller has stayed at about 146 for the last four months.

If you adjust for the season (people are less likely to shop for homes when the weather gets cold) the index was at 145.49 in November. That's up slightly from 145.14 in October, which is up slightly from 144.77 in September, which is up very slightly from 144.62 in August.

Or, if you round off the decimals, the seasonally-adjusted Case-Shiller index has stayed at 145 for the last four months.

I like to imagine a young housing journalist turning in a stories about Case-Shiller treading water only to have a furious editor send it back. "You can't say nothing happened!" says the editor. "Give me a story!"

But to my mind, after the rapid price appreciation of the housing boom and the dizzying fall that followed, it's big news that housing prices have been flat for four months. Treading water is better than drowning.
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