When it comes to housing, we're a relentlessly optimistic bunch

Orange condo building

It turns out we Americans are a glass-half-full nation when it comes to housing and the economy.

That’s despite the evidence that home prices and personal finances still are weak.

I see this guarded hopefulness in my own neighborhood.

There are homes for sale on my block with outrageous prices by today’s standards. I don’t think my neighbors have much chance of selling their houses for what they're asking.

But God bless them anyway. If they find some unwitting buyer, it only helps my home’s value.

This anecdote of optimism comes to mind because I’ve just read the monthly housing survey from Fannie Mae, one of the government-owned mortgage giants that backs most of the home loans in the United States.

There's much in this survey that shows we're a hopeful bunch. Some of this optimism is warranted; much of it, not so much.

We believe:

Home prices have hit bottom.

On average, according to Fannie Mae, we think housing prices will increase by about 1% this year.

But the housing recession isn't over.

Last week, the National Association of Realtors reported in its latest survey that housing prices had declined in the fourth quarter of 2011 in 118 of 149 metropolitan areas. That's nearly 80% of the housing markets that saw lower prices.

The Realtors also found that median home prices fell 4.2% in the last three months of 2011, to $163,500, compared with the prior year.

Mortgage rates will remain historically low throughout 2012.

The Fannie Mae survey showed 51% of us believe mortgage rates will remain about the same over the next 12 months.

The last time more of us thought mortgage rates would increase was April 2011.

There is evidence to suggest mortgage rates will remain low throughout this year since the Federal Reserve has fought hard to push rates down through its efforts to buy long-term government debt.

Since mortgage rates follow long-term Treasury rates up and down, the bank's plan to buy long-term debt through June should help to hold the cost of home loans at or near the current record lows.

Consistent positive employment numbers like we saw last month could help drive mortgage rates higher. However, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, among other economists, remains skeptical about improved hiring figures.

Our personal finances will get better this year.

Fewer of us (15% down from 18%) believe our financial situations will get worse, while more of us (44% up from 40%) think our finances will improve, according to the Fannie Mae survey.

This is an overly cheery outlook.

The Deloitte Consumer Spending Index showed in January that real incomes declined for the fifth month in a row, while state and local tax increases diluted spending power.

Consumer debt also increased in the last three months of 2011. This means there's more borrowing and less savings.

So what are we to believe?

Does our gut instinct not square with reality? Or do we sense things -- like the proverbial canary in the coal mine -- before they are obvious?

Let's hope these numbers are a prediction of good things to come.

Call me a skeptic, but I have my doubts.

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