In a nation with about 314 million people, fewer than 16,000 households enjoyed nearly a third of all the reported income gains since 2009. And the bottom 90 percent? The vast majority saw their incomes slip downward from $31,553 in 2009 to $30,997 in 2012, a decline of nearly two percent.

So what factors could propel housing prices, and rents, higher if incomes are down?

One is local conditions. There is no national housing market, only local ones. And prices vary enormously. I once looked at the cost of replacing my home in Western New York with one in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital. Fully comparable homes were priced at about ten times the value of mine. That is one aspect of what the real estate industry says are its only three rules for immovable property: location, location, and location.

Another answer comes from Kate Berry of American Banker, who explained in April:

banks are walking away from thousands of vacant properties after starting and then refusing to complete the foreclosure process because they do not want to pay for maintaining the homes.

The result: hundreds of thousands of homes are being withheld from the market, raising questions about whether the recent run-up in housing prices is artificial. Meanwhile, former homeowners that have already left the property with the belief they lost the home to foreclosure are ending up on the hook for the unpaid debt, taxes and repairs.

When faced with reports on rising housing prices, reporters should ask some skeptical questions. Ask how sustainable those prices are if incomes are not rising. Ask how many houses are in the inventory available for sale and how many are off the market. Ask how many apartments are being warehoused (which some cities have laws against) and how this affects the prices renters are asked to pay.

In other words, go beyond the routine, superficial housing prices story, to try to get at what’s really happening out there.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ.