Some of the markets that had gone down significantly have registered great price improvements, especially between Q1 2012 to Q3 2013. Phoenix led the pack followed closely by Las Vegas and many California cities. Florida has provided steady appreciation but did not go crazy (most likely due to the slow judicial foreclosure process which modulates home supply into the market and helps avoid spikes).
It is important to bear in mind though, that even in Phoenix and Las Vegas the prices, even after appreciation, are still low. In most cases, the prices reflect just a small premium to construction costs and are certainly very far from the peak (although that is a somewhat nebulous standard). This would be the time to remember that real estate is a classic investment, especially when powered by a 30-year fixed-rate loan.
It is now almost a consensus that interest rates will rise (most say significantly) in the next few years. Needless to say, anyone who has the ability to qualify for a good low-interest-rate 30-year fixed rate loan should get one! These are 100% inflation-proof. In fact, once you have these loans inflation becomes your “best friend” by eroding the loan since the loan is not inflation-adjusted.
Florida still supplies a steady diet of below-construction-cost homes. That would be a place to explore purchasing. However, the power of getting a fixed low rate becomes such that as long as you buy in a decent market with decent demographics, it is not bad to “get moving” and do it.
New homes by builders are still not that popular among investors but in some markets, they are not that much above the used-home fray AND they provide a certain peace of mind related to their very newness, warranties and so on. Many builders help out with the loan in some way (buy down the rate for example) so that may add to the attractiveness.
All in all 2014 should be a year to be active and purchase, especially if a 30-year loan can be had.
Should you go for a somewhat lower rate on a 15-year loan? I believe the 30-year loan provides important extra flexibility. You can always choose to pay a 30-year loan in 15 (or 14 or any other number you choose), but you cannot go the other way. You also retain the flexibility to revert back to the 30-year amortization schedule if cash flow becomes tight.