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Optimistic on home prices?

It’s no secret that U.S. home prices have enjoyed a healthy rebound in 2013 after the nightmarish 33% drop over the previous five years that triggered an orgy of mortgage defaults and wealth destruction. These days, monthly home-price reports regularly show double-digit percentage jumps over the year-earlier period, whether it’s the 13.3% annual increase for September of the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Home Price Index or the 12.2% annual rise for October logged by CoreLogic’s home-price index.

Yet, at least some observers question how much longer the home-price recovery can continue. A jump in mortgage rates along with the torrid increases in home prices have hurt transaction volume some. The market has been overly dependent on all-cash buyers such as vulture funds, which earlier this year accounted for about a third of all sales. What will happen when they have eaten their fill? Increasingly, the home-price growth will depend on conventional buyers, who must borrow from a mortgage-lending industry that is still imposing stringent lending standards on new mortgages.

Still, after talking to various industry experts and analyzing disparate data, Barron’s thinks that home-price appreciation should continue for the next three years, albeit at a slower pace than the double-digit increases seen this year.

TO BE SURE, forecasting markets is an unforgiving and somewhat foolhardy task. And experts’ three-year projections for home prices vary all over the lot. Ingo Winzer of Local Market Monitor, which tracks more than 300 U.S. metro markets, is looking for price growth of about 7% over each of the next three years, while CoreLogic, the real-estate statistical firm, expects price increases of 4.7% in 2014, 4% in 2015, and 1.9% in 2016.

For the sake of conservatism, we’re hewing to the middle range, looking for home-price jumps of 5% in each of the first two years and, perhaps, just 3% in 2016, as new construction picks up to bolster supply and more empty-nest baby boomers put their houses on the market to unlock trapped home equity. These projections somewhat mirror those of Moody’s Analytics. “The U.S. is clearly in a home-price up-cycle that has a lot of room to run,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics.

A constellation of factors revolves around our relatively upbeat forecast on home prices. Upswings in home prices, like the one that has just begun, tend to run in five-to-10-year cycles, due to market inefficiency arising from the inertia of home buyers’ expectations.