Numbers Tell a Story

Lenders and owners are rehabilitating millions of foreclosed properties.

April 1, 2013

An interesting book, “Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten,” by Stephen Few, crossed my desk today.

One premise of this engaging text is that although raw data is important, it is only useful when we choose the relevant pieces of it to tell a story. The story is told through meaningful graphs and charts that effectively illustrate concepts without overwhelming the audience.

Compelling statistical stories are best told, Few says, when they are simple, seamless, informative, true, and contextual. Furthermore, data must be presented to the audience in an accessible way, and this happens when we make it familiar, concrete, personal, and emotional.

Stories, too, must be sequential. Complexity of information builds to a conclusion.

“Nothing is more powerful than genuine passion,” says Few. We can, with good storytelling, make even seemingly dry information palatable with our own enthusiasm and understanding of the material.

That is when magic happens…

A good statistical story proves actionable. “Effective stories make it easy for people to respond,” and good presentation of data suggests various courses of action.

As you read this week’s findings, consider how you might write a statistical story that makes for compelling telling and leads to actionable success in your decision-making process.

Telling tales in the housing landscape…

Census Bureau: New Home Sales a Mixed Bag,” reports Housingwire. “Sales of new single-family homes dropped slightly in February to a seasonally adjusted rate of 411,000 homes sold, 4.6% below the revised January rate of 431,000 units. However, February sales are 12.3% above the February 2012 estimate of 366,000 units…”

The housing market recovery is expected to continue due to good valuations, low interest rates, and lessening “competition from deeply discounted existing homes.”

Existing homes need some facelifts, according to a Harvard University study, “The U.S. Housing Stock: Ready for Renewal.”

Here you’ll learn as the economy recovers, “investment in the nation’s housing inventory is also picking up. Lenders and new owners are rehabilitating millions of foreclosed properties. Older homeowners are retrofitting their homes to accommodate their future needs. Households in general are increasing their investments in environmentally sustainable improvements. And with the huge echo-boom population moving into the home-buying market…the remodeling industry can look to an even more promising future.”

This statistical analysis tells an engaging story about those investing in housing, reveals spending trends, and imparts challenges to progress.

Can your credit union become a character in this tale?

An Overview of the Housing Finance System in the United States” is presented by the Congressional Research Service. “This report provides an overview of how the housing finance system works and provides context for housing finance-related policy issues the Congress might choose to consider,” which may prompt thought from lenders and others feeling the impact of congressional oversight and legislative change.

The housing landscape is changing indeed, as “Those Amazing Deals on Foreclosed Homes are Disappearing,” says Business Insider. “Ultra-low mortgage interest rates and steady, if not spectacular, job creation mean that the delinquency rate and foreclosure start rate are falling quickly.”

This indicates the housing inventory is changing a bit as more homes hit the market in short sales.

“This has caused the discount on foreclosed homes versus other homes to decline to an average of 12%, a level last seen before the housing crash. Last year the discount was a much deeper 30%.”

Another plot twist in foreclosures can be appreciated in “Mapping How Housing is on the Mend,” a SmartBlog posting featuring maps of mortgage delinquencies, percentages of mortgages under foreclosure, and housing vacancy percentage by ZIP codes.

Reasons why tracking such locations matter:

In essence, “everyone benefits when people own their homes and want to take care of them,” and it is important to know about various opportunities and challenges to be discovered and addressed in given areas.

No youthful yarn yawning!

For those under 40, “the American dream of working hard, saving more, and becoming wealthier” may be a bigger challenge than for older generations.

Generations X and Y “have accumulated less wealth than their parents did at that age over a quarter-century ago” and “their average wealth in 2010 was 7% below that of those in their 20s and 30s in 1983,” according to “Lost Generations? Wealth Building Among Young Americans” by the Urban Institute.

This loss may be difficult to recover, and a consequence is that this cohort will be “less able to support themselves when they eventually retire. This financial uncertainty could reverberate throughout the economy, since entrepreneurial activity, saving, and investment tend to build on a base of confidence and growing wealth.”

Meanwhile, the trend of struggling younger generations is echoed in “Plastic-Shy Young in U.S. Spur Move to New Credit Data.”

Young adults hesitate to use credit in everyday buying. “Thirty-nine percent of undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 24 owned a credit card in 2012, down from 49% in 2010.”

Further, younger people with cards carry lesser balances, “A median of $1,600 in 2010 compared with $2,500 in 2001 for those under 35.”

This is significant as lack of credit history for such consumers will create problems in obtaining financing for home purchases and automobiles. Various implications and considerations are presented in this interesting analysis.

Back to the book

Always ask, “What’s the story?” suggests Stephen Few. “Data sense-making precedes data presentation.”

Your ability to decipher will affect the impact you make with tales told.

As storyteller Kate Chopin noted, “There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar on the water.” Make sure both your oars are in!






Lora Bray is a research librarian at CUNA.