buying a home real estateDespite a slight decline in property values month-to-month, industry experts are cautiously optimistic that the housing market will continue its slow recovery. Low mortgage rates, combined with positive outlook reports from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and improving unemployment numbers, lead many to believe we’re on the right track toward more Americans buying a home.

But we still have a long way to go.

In late February, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) released the seasonally adjusted purchase-only house price index (HPI). According to the FHFA report, seasonally adjusted home prices fell 2.4 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2011, despite little change from November to December of the same year.

Andrew Leventis, principal economist at FHFA, believes there’s a silver lining: “While FHFA’s national index shows a two percentage point price decline over the latest four quarters, 12 states and the District of Columbia posted price increases [year-over-year]. When coupled with the fact that about half of all U.S. states saw price increases in last quarter, this growth adds to mounting evidence that real estate markets are at least seeing some signs of life,” he said in a press release.

Fannie Mae shares Leventis’s cautious optimism, according to its recent economic and housing outlook. Based on three consecutive months of increased home sales late last year, Fannie Mae expects housing to add to the gross domestic product (GDP) for the first time in seven years. The addition will be moderate, as continued price declines are expected in the near-term.

“Risks to the forecast are more balanced between the upside and downside since our January forecast,” Fannie Mae Chief Economist Doug Duncan said in a press release. “The economy appears to be more resilient than in previous months, and should be less vulnerable to shocks, including any spillover from the European sovereign debt crisis.”

Fannie’s brother Freddie Mac believes there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, too. Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist for the Freddie Mac, sees things taking a positive turn: “The U.S. economy continues to build on the momentum from the end of last year. Our outlook anticipates gradual, but steady, improvement in the economy and the housing market, supported by low interest rates and brightening job market prospects,” he said in Freddie’s press release.

Don’t expect a huge turnaround this year – according to Freddie’s report, a major housing warm up isn’t expected until 2013.

Even so, things are starting to thaw. Home prices are slowly rising in cities hit hard by the housing bubble-burst, and a foreclosure settlement between the big banks and the states means the foreclosure bottleneck should begin to clear. This will probably contribute to a decline in prices in the early part of 2012, but the quicker we get rid of them the sooner we can begin a true housing recovery.

It’s great to see experts feeling more positive about the housing market, but until consumers feel the same way, it will remain stagnant. The good news is that jobless claims reached their lowest level since 2008 in February, and unemployment fell to 8.3 percent. If those trends continue, would-be homebuyers could begin taking advantage of near-historic low interest rates. We won’t see a housing market like the one we saw during the housing bubble any time soon, but hopefully we’re past the worst of it.

Ilyce R. Glink is the author of several books, including 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and Buy, Close, Move In!. She blogs about money and real estate at ThinkGlink.com and at the Home Equity blog for CBS MoneyWatch.