4:38pm

Tue April 26, 2011
Planet Money

U.S. Home Prices, Sung As Opera

Originally published on Wed October 17, 2012 12:16 pm

  • A Decade of U.S. Home Prices
  • A Decade of Miami Home Prices
  • A Decade of Dallas Home Prices
  • A Decade of U.S. Home Prices: (With Words)

The Case-Shiller home price index is a powerful way to look at the story of housing in America. You can see the boom and bust all in one simple graph.

But when we go on the radio to talk about home prices, a graph isn't much good to us — nobody can see it.

So we converted the Case-Shiller graph into musical notes.

We gave the sheet music to Timothy McDevitt, a baritone who's getting a master's degree at Juilliard. Then we got Karl Case and Robert Shiller — the economists who created the index — to listen to the music weigh in.

Here's what the past decade of housing in America sounds like:

The national song is based on Case-Shiller's 20-city composite. For comparison, we also turned data from a couple U.S. cities into music.

Here's Miami, the city with the biggest boom:

"I could see those towers, those cranes, building those condo buildings on Miami Beach," Case said. "Some of those cranes are still there. They're not building much now."

And here's Dallas:

Shiller said Texas had a big housing boom and bust a few decades ago. That helped the state dodge the latest round of housing mania:

They've been through that, they've seen it, and they're not ready for another bubble, and they just didn't participate in this one. It's like opera: You only have one grand moment when the heroine and the hero die on stage. You can't do that again right away.

Secret bonus track:

Here's the past decade of home prices in America — with both melody and words:

Thanks to Planet Money's Jess Jiang, who figured out how to convert Case-Shiller numbers into musical notes.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block with a musical twist now on the nation's faltering housing market. The monthly Case-Shiller Home Price Index came out today, tracking home prices across the country. And our Planet Money team turned those numbers into opera.

Here are David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The Case-Shiller Home Price Index is a powerful way to look at the story of home prices in America. You can see the boom and bust all in this one simple graph.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: It's an amazing graph to look at, but we cannot show it to you because this is radio.

KESTENBAUM: So we converted the Case-Shiller graph into musical notes. And we gave the sheet music to this guy.

Mr. TIMOTHY MCDEVITT (Opera Student): (Singing)

Hello, I'm Timothy McDevitt. I am a second-year master's student at the Juilliard School. And I am a baritone.

KESTENBAUM: So, here it is. First, let's listen to Miami, a decade of home prices in the city with the biggest boom.

Mr. MCDEVITT: (Singing)

KESTENBAUM: That last note there...

Mr. MCDEVITT: (Singing)

KESTENBAUM: That was the news.

GOLDSTEIN: In other words, Miami home prices fell to a new post-bubble low in February. They're now down 50 percent from the peak.

Have you heard, Professor Shiller, have you heard your index set to opera before?

Professor ROBERT SHILLER (Economics, Yale University): No, never.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDSTEIN: We played our opera for the two toughest critics we could find: Robert Shiller and Karl Case.

Professor KARL CASE (Economics, Wellesley): I absolutely love it.

GOLDSTEIN: They're the two economists who created the index that inspired the opera.

KESTENBAUM: After Miami, we played them a very different graph, a decade of Dallas home prices.

Mr. MCDEVITT: (Singing)

GOLDSTEIN: No boom, no bust. Here's Karl Case.

Prof. CASE: It really depends on where you were. It's incredibly different for people who live in Texas than it is for people who live in Florida and for people who live in, say, Boston.

KESTENBAUM: The Case-Shiller data also paints a national picture of the housing market. It's a composite of 20 cities from around the country. Here's what that graph sounds like.

Mr. MCDEVITT: (Singing)

GOLDSTEIN: You can hear the boom and the bust, but there's also something subtle in there that's worth pointing out. Here's the first note where housing prices were 10 years ago.

Mr. MCDEVITT: (Singing)

GOLDSTEIN: And here's the last note where prices are now.

Mr. MCDEVITT: (Singing)

GOLDSTEIN: That last note, it's higher than the first note.

KESTENBAUM: On average, housing prices have gone up over the past decade. They basically kept pace with inflation, despite this ugly, painful detour.

I'm David Kestenbaum.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein, NPR News.

Mr. MCDEVITT: (Singing) The sub-prime lending industry combined with mortgage-backed securities to create a massive housing bubble in the United States. When the bubble pops, home prices fell 30 percent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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