Bye-Bye, Bubble

Bad news for the media: The real estate bubble is fading away as a story.

Something terrible is happening in the media. And I'm not referring to the latest plagiarized, made-up, or just lousy piece of journalism that might destroy [insert name of famous old newspaper or television network]. Nor am I fretting about circulation declines, anonymous sources, the spinelessness of mainstream outlets, or the narcissism of blogs.

Those are minor issues, fleabites, next to the real crisis I see unfolding right now, a disaster so profound, it's painful to even write the words:

The real estate bubble is fading away.

Yes, the story of soaring home values that has lit up our lives for the last several years, and produced an incalculable number of breathless headlines and anecdotal leads about Joe and Jane Homeowner; the epic journalistic narrative that lent so much tension and drama to everyday existence (Is there really a bubble? Is it in my ZIP code? Can I make money from it?); the pop-culture phenomenon that launched a zillion identical kitchen renovations with stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops; the boom that filled the Friday lifestyle sections of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times with display ads for swank "estate properties" that you might actually be able to afford next year if prices on your street keep rising insanely—is dying.

Don't believe me? Just look at the latest news. For a bubble story to stay alive, it must either be expanding rapidly, or bursting suddenly and wreaking havoc across the landscape. The tech bubble was a classic of the genre: It grew and grew in the late '90s, sucking in more and more gullible people, and then in a very short time, beginning in March 2000, it just blew, and countless investors lost their shirts. By bursting spectacularly, the tech bubble confirmed itself as a true bubble and became legend.

The problem with the housing bubble is, it's not expanding wildly any more, yet it's not exactly bursting, either. It's being unpredictable and confusing. One day last week, the headline was that sales of "existing homes" were down in October, while inventories were up—apparent signs of the bubble popping. But the next day, different data for the very same month showed sales of new homes hitting an all-time high. In some cases, the two conflicting signals appeared in the same, inevitably murky, story. An Associated Press story went out on the wire under the byzantine headline: "Sales of New Homes Hit All-Time High in What Could Be Final Throes of Boom."

The economists who have been the frequent fliers of the hot real estate beat, such as the oft-quoted David Lereah of the National Association of Realtors, are all over the place talking about the bubble losing air slowly, and the possibility that the housing market will get a "soft landing." That might be good for the economy, but it would be bad, bad, bad for the news.

After all, a bubble that bursts slowly and safely was never a bubble at all, meaning that we may soon find ourselves bereft of a phenomenon that had become a fixture of the daily news cycle—and all the feelings of excitement and danger that went with it.

The media fed off the real estate bubble, and it's easy to see why. It was one of those rare economic stories that the average media consumer really connected to in a personal way. Suddenly, everyday people were talking about housing starts and debating the supposed macroeconomic perils of interest-only loans. In the pre-bubble years, when Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan issued one of his mystical pronouncements on the economy, everyday readers and viewers would plug their ears and run away. But when he spoke about the great bubble question—as he did last May when he said he detected "froth" in some markets—the whole nation was riveted.

And why not? Housing was the first gold rush of the 21st century, a source of impossibly easy wealth. And it was more fun than gold or stocks because you got to live in it. Establishment media outlets may seem lost these days, but they still know how to exploit a craze, and they filled their soft-news hole with features pegged to real estate. The home renovation boom, a direct outgrowth of the bubble, even produced its own reality shows, such as ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Elite newspapers were packed with stories that sliced and diced the property fetish every which way. The Times and The Journal mined it weekly with those cute little features about other people's fabulous castles, villas, ski houses, desert houses, mountain houses, lake houses, and on, and on. The media turned real estate into a new kind of socially acceptable pornography.

The bubble isn't gone as a story, not yet. But back in October, the early-warning headlines started to appear. "Real Estate Cools in Hot Markets Like Manhattan," said The New York Times in a startling front-pager. A cooling is not a crash—it won't make you rich, but it won't make you poor, either. And it's hard to care about something so moderate.

This week, I was cruising the real estate blogs (yes, there are scads) when I came across a good one called Marin Real Estate Bubble, "A Place for Residents of Marin County, Calif., and Others to Express Their Views Regarding the Real Estate Bubble." The blog had a new posting about a survey in which 67 percent of Americans said they "believe there really is a real estate bubble," as if it were Santa Claus. And so it was.