The 5 best (and 5 worst) housing markets for 2012 (© Jan Tyler/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh is among the housing markets expected to fare well in 2012. // © Jan Tyler/Getty Images

The outlook isn't totally bleak for this year's real-estate market. While a recovery was nowhere to be found in 2011, a handful of markets were spared the worst and are expected to rebound more quickly than others, thanks to a growing job and population base. (Bing: What's the unemployment rate in your area?)

In this month's Buying Advice, we'll identify the safest havens for buyers, and those where house hunters might want to sit the year out.

We'll check in with the latest housing statistics and see what buyers should take away from the big revision to the National Association of Realtors' monthly sales numbers going back several years. Plus, we'll answer a reader's question about whether it's OK to break a lease to buy a house.

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Fish or cut bait? The 5 most promising and abysmal markets
Every year we like to gaze into the crystal ball and predict which markets will prove best for buyers. To make this prediction more accurate, MSN Real Estate asked forecasting firm Local Market Monitor which five housing markets it would pick as the most promising in the year ahead and why; by "most promising," we mean those that will suffer the smallest slide. Here are LMM's picks, in no particular order:

  • Pittsburgh: This former steel town may lack some of the glamour of bigger metros, but it has better prospects than most U.S. cities. The job base of colleges, hospitals and other health-care employers is growing. And while the population has remained relatively steady, those who live here enjoy slightly higher incomes than the national average. Houses are relatively cheap too, with the average home costing just $168,612 as of Dec. 1. The housing boom boosted prices 16%, and there has been no real decline since. The recession in Pittsburgh also was mild, with jobs down just 2%. Prices might dip 1% in the next year, but from there values should pick up again, gaining 2% in 2013.
  • Worcester, Mass.: High-tech job growth has returned to this market an hour west of Boston. Many urban dwellers are looking in this area for bigger, less expensive houses than they'd find in the big city. While the average home price of $237,020 has declined 3% over the last year, prices are beginning to bottom, with 2% growth expected in 2013.
  • Houston/Sugarland/Baytown, Texas: Two things are fueling the market here — oil and people. The energy sector in these cities continues to create jobs, and population growth is triple the national average. Incomes are higher than the national average, and the housing bust was almost nonexistent here, with just a 4% drop from the peak. The average home here is a bargain at $176,489. This market is expected to hit bottom next year and — you guessed it — gain 2% in 2013.
  • Akron, Ohio: The average home price of $148,508 has slipped 4% in the last year, but the future looks brighter. Jobs — especially manufacturing jobs — are coming back to Akron. Like many Midwest cities, there was no housing boom here to speak of. Values are down just 13% from the peak, about a third of the hit the U.S. as a whole suffered. There won't be a quick uptick in values, but buyers here can expect the market to hit bottom this year, with a 2% gain in 2013.
  • New Orleans/Metairie-Kenner, La.: People are returning to New Orleans, and the outlook is good. While the average home price of $249,673 declined 2% in the last year and is expected to take another 2% hit in 2012, prices should appreciate 1% in 2013 on stronger job growth than the national average.

On the flip side, LMM pinpointed five markets where buyers should hold off on making a purchase. Overbuilding was rampant in these areas, and many also suffered a bigger loss in jobs, says Ingo Winzer, LMM's president. The huge supply of homes means that even if the jobs picture improves, it could take the better part of a decade for real growth to return to home prices.

The five markets LMM predicts will endure the most pain in the years ahead are Wilmington, Del.-Md.-N.J.; Atlanta/Sandy Springs/Marietta, Ga.; Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Newport News, Va.-N.C. and the California cities of Sacramento and Fresno. In these areas, prices are expected to decline another 7% to 10% in the next year alone.

Buyers: What would make you fall in love with a home? Owners: What features or aspects of your home have provided you with the most comfort and enjoyment? What did you think was important while looking, only to change your mind after move-in? Let us know, and we'll write about this in the February Buying Advice column. Send an email to msnrealestate@microsoft.com.

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Home-sales snapshot and the NAR's major revision. What was that all about?
The NAR in December revised its sales numbers for much of the downturn — scaling back sales between 2007 and 2010 a whopping 14.6%. The real-estate industry's largest trade group cited population shifts and an overestimation of for-sale-by-owner transactions for the disparity.

The change, NAR officials said, did not affect local multiple-listing-service information or local home prices, but it raises questions about the accuracy of the NAR's methodology for estimating U.S. sales using local listing services and a census benchmark, rather than property records.

Economists say the revision doesn't really change the outlook for the housing market going forward, so for most buyers it's kind of a non-issue.

Existing-home sales increased to 4.42 million in November, up 4% from the previous month, and a 12.2% jump from November 2010, according to the latest NAR data. The national median existing-home price declined 3.5% from a year ago to $164,200.

The pace of sales appears to be picking up. The NAR's Pending Home Sales Index, which tracks contract signings for homes, posted a 7.3% increase in November to 100.1, the highest it has been in 18 months and up from 93.3 in October.