Three of the country’s top housing economists painted a restrained picture of the nation’s housing market for the year ahead during a press conference Tuesday at the International Builders Show (IBS) in Las Vegas.

“The good news is that I think the recession is over,” said David Crowe, the NAHB’s chief economist, who projects a plateau in housing recovery this summer after a springtime increase due to the tax credit. “It won’t be a strong recovery, but it will be a recovery.”

He was joined by Frank Nothaft, chief economist for Freddie Mac, and David Berson, chief economist for PMI in that assessment. “Usually the steeper the economic decline, the stronger the recovery,” Berson said. “Not this time.”

Still, Crowe and his counterparts found a number of positive trends for housing in 2010:

• Low interest rates. Even with the Treasury scheduled to stop purchasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage-backed securities this spring, mortgage rates are expected to remain in the 5% to 6% range through 2010.

• Stablizing home values. “Is that stabilization permanent?” asked Berson, who said he expected to see price declines, at least in the short term, some of which were due to normal seasonal patterns in home prices. Some economists have suggested the possibility of a double-dip in home values this year, but Crowe said he believed that the market is at a point where prices “have finally stopped declining on a national basis.”

• Strong home affordability, thanks to historically low interest rates and bargain home prices.

• Slow inflation. This will keep wages down, but it will also restrain material prices, predicted Crowe, which is good news for builders; building material prices often spike as recovery begins.

However, the economy and housing market remains “fragile,” according to Crowe. Employment—or lack thereof—is a “continued negative,” with the unemployment rate expected to continue climb as high as 10.2% this year.

In terms of mortgages, the FHA is expected to remain a major player, with a 25% market share, according to Nothaft. That’s not likely to change until banks return to health and the housing market is more stable, despite current concerns about the financial risks to FHA and by extension, the government. The FHA “is walking a tightrope between providing enough mortgage financing to keep the housing recovery going and managing risk,” said Berson. (In a related development, the FHA said yesterday it would be raising credit requirements and mortgage premiums for new borrowers.)

The foreclosure crisis has not abated, particularly in formerly hot housing markets. “The concentration of foreclosures is striking,” said Crowe, who noted that 70% of all foreclosures are in 11 states, which also happen to be the places where home prices spiked the highest.

Las Vegas qualifies as one of those markets, and Crowe said he expects “continued suffering” in Vegas for the year ahead, in response to a local reporter’s question.

“It’s just that the inventory is so large” in Vegas, added Berson. For better or worse, though, investors are returning to the Sin City housing market, according to the PMI economist.  Investors “were clearly part of the problem. Maybe they are part of the solution now.”

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine. Follow her live tweets from IBS at