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Economists are forecasting that U.S. home prices will bottom out in 2012 and previously reluctant buyers will return to the market; however, others warn that a large “shadow inventory” of soon-to-be foreclosed homes still exists and that these will continue to hamper a wider market recovery. Even as hedge fund managers begin to bet on housing market improvements for the coming year, banks continue to negotiate with federal regulators to settle foreclosure disputes and many foreclosures remain on the books, making it harder to predict how the market will respond when they begin to clear. For more on this continue reading the following article from TheStreet.

Mortgage rates remained amazingly low for 2011, but that won't stop a coming wave of foreclosures in 2012.

Mortgage rates finished near all-time historic lows in 2011. Freddie Mac on Thursday released the results of its Primary Mortgage Market Survey. The 30-year fixed rate mortgage rate ended 2011 with an average 3.95% for the week ending Dec.29, 2011, up from the previous week's rate of 3.91 % but significantly lower than the 4.86% averaged in the year-ago period.

The 15-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.24%, up from 3.21%, but lower than the 4.20% averaged a year earlier.

Looking ahead, Freddie Mac economist Frank Nothaft expects mortgage rates to remain very low at least through mid-2012, as the Federal Reserve has indicated that it will keep the federal funds rate near zero till as late as mid-2013.

He does expect housing prices to bottom in the later part of 2012. " Low mortgage rates and existing house prices could lead to a bump-up in sales by 3 to 5 percent in 2012 over the 2011 level," he wrote in his commentary. "While encouraging, sales volume is still low, given the strong current affordability of housing. And ample distressed sales and sluggish home-buying demand will continue to keep prices soft in many markets: We expect U.S. house-price indexes to move lower before bottoming out in 2012, with modest appreciation forestalled until 2013."

With rents climbing and housing affordability remaining at its best level in years, some economists are predicting that buyers who have stayed on the sidelines will return to the market in 2012. Hedge funds are beginning to bet on a recovery in the housing market, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

Recent housing data has sent confusing signals about the direction of the housing market. The S&P Case-Shiller Housing Price Index showed home values in the 20-city composite falling 3.4% in October on a year-on-year basis and 1.2% over September.

Meanwhile, pending home sales, a forward looking indicator of existing home-sales activity showed signs of improvement, increasing 7.3% on a monthly basis to 100.1 in November, its highest level in 19 months.

Still, the biggest overhang for the housing market remains the significant foreclosure inventory that is yet to be cleared from the market as well as "shadow" inventory- properties that will ultimately wind up in foreclosure.

One in every 579 housing units received a foreclosure filing in November 2011, according to RealtyTrac. Overall foreclosure activity dropped 3% in November from the previous month, but a new wave of foreclosures could be coming in 2012.

"Despite a seasonal slowdown similar to what we've seen in each of the past four years, November's numbers suggest a new set of incoming foreclosure waves, many of which may roll into the market as REOs or short sales sometime early next year," said James Saccacio, co-founder of RealtyTrac, in a news release.

Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo together account for more than 60% of the first mortgages in the country.

The three are among the big mortgage servicers that have been in year-long negotiations with federal regulators and the state attorneys general to reach a settlement over alleged improper foreclosure practices including robo-signing.

The robo-signing controversy and the ongoing negotiations have stalled the foreclosure process for banks. However, analysts maintain that banks need to clear their foreclosure inventory soon for housing values to fully correct and then make a stable recovery.

Bank of America has the most troubled mortgage portfolio. Real estate owned and repossessed assets amounted to over $2.6 billion in the first 9 months of 2011.

This article was republished with permission from TheStreet.