1) The builders built too many houses.
2) The builders built too many expensive houses.
3) Buyers (in certain regions - e.g. Northern Virginia, Atlanta, California, etc.) have pushed the housing prices up and up and up, and created a bubble that is now deflating.
4) Mortgage lenders offer bad loans and qualified buyers they shouldn't have.
5) Some cities (e.g. Columbus, OH) decided to clean-up downtown and move the poor folk out by helping them get qualified for those bad loans, thus making them someone else's problem.
6) Some areas(e.g. Loudoun County, VA) decided to set building codes that pushed property values up, primarily to preserve their way of life - spacious housing.
7) The average buyer can no longer afford to buy a house, condo, townhouse, or even an apartment. So young families are in trouble of finding places to live where the parent(s) have a decent commute (1/2 hour or less) to work with a job(s) that pays well enough to support the family.
8) Established households can't afford to buy a new house where they live. (Several years ago I had one high up general manager where I work say that he couldn't afford to buy his own house if he had to.)
And the list goes on. However, the Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, seems to get it:
Mr. Bernanke offered a rocky outlook for the months ahead. He said the battered housing market had yet to hit bottom, that delinquencies and foreclosures were likely to rise and that the depression in home-building was “likely to intensify.” He predicted that personal spending would advance more slowly, because consumers were less confident and because of tighter credit conditions.
- Quote from this NY Times article.
Yes, the depression on housing is going to intensify - prices have to come down to where normal people can afford to buy a house - and by normal I mean people with a $50k a year salary that have little to no debt, save may be college debt, with a good credit score. When that happens, then expect the housing market to turn around, no sooner.
So what can the builders do to help? Tear down the multi-hundred-thousand dollar homes they've been building, cut the lots to a quarter acre - even a half acre - and then put up a more reasonable homestead that most people can afford. Make $300k the top end, and $120k the bottom end. Then work with lenders to provide good, solid loans that are not going to destroy people's credit (e.g. variable rate interest loans, interest only loans, etc.). And inform buyers that lenders will work with them to keep them from foreclosure. People will buy - but you have to make it a safe market to do so.
Right now, the market is not safe. Answer the big question - if I sell in 5 years (a lot of people do), then could I get my money out of it at the very least? Right now, the answer is a very flat, absolute, and resounding NO. Turn it into a 'yes' and people will buy. (My wife and I did not recently buy for that very reason; we opted to continue renting - why? we didn't know where we'd be in 5 years and might need to move out of state, so it was too risky for us to buy at present.)