Home prices on Long Island, which started retreating before the financial crisis, have now dropped to levels that prevailed in early 2004.
In February, homes on the Island sold for a median price of $360,000, just above the $356,000 they fetched in March 2004, according to the Long Island Real Estate Report, which tracks data on Nassau and Suffolk home sales.
The February prices mark a nearly 22 percent decline from the bubble's most recent peak of $460,000 in June 2007. (The data provider considers sales statistics more definitive six weeks after the end of the month, so the most recent data available are for February.)
The median price -- the midpoint in a series of numbers -- of a home in February was just 1.1 percent higher than in March 2004. That tiny return lagged behind the 23 percent growth in prices on Long Island, as measured by the consumer price index, and was outstripped by many other investments in the same period.
The stock market suffered one of the worst bear markets since the Depression from October 2007 to March 2009, but overall it still gained 40 percent from March 2004 through February, as measured by the Standard & Poor's 500 index. Treasury notes returned 42 percent, according to financial research firm Morningstar. Just putting your money into certificates of deposit would have yielded 21 percent.
Gold soared 347 percent. And if you were lucky enough to lay out $57,500 in February 2004 for a copy of Action Comics No. 1, the 1938 comic book where Superman made his first appearance, you would have seen a similar copy sell in March 2012 for $298,750, a gain of 420 percent.
Homeowners who bought during the long run-up in real estate prices say the housing crash has upended their plans for the future.
When Ching and Natalie Yu bought their five-bedroom ranch in Huntington in 2004 for $689,000, they could not have been happier.
"It's the American dream -- move to America, buy a house," said Ching Yu, 36, a native of China who had lived in Queens before buying the house.
The couple spent more than $100,000 on renovations, remaking the basement with a new bathroom, bar, billiard table and guest bedroom.
Last year, with his mortgage interest rate rising, Yu found his income was not sufficient to make the higher payments. He jumped at an offer to manage a 300-room hotel in China, but his wife stayed behind to look after their home.
When the house went on the market last year, he was hoping to get $750,000. He said he rejected numerous lowball offers. The home was most recently listed for $695,000, and he expects to re-list it soon.
"Now I just want to get the purchase price, that would be fine," Yu said.
"It's very disappointing," he said. "The price going down, it hurts a lot."
Dr. Michael Sherman, a dentist, left a rented garden apartment when he bought a two-bedroom town house in Bay Shore in January 2006. Now he kicks himself for moving.
He paid $530,000 for the town house and still owes about $500,000. The home's current value? He estimates it's worth $400,000.
He and his wife are making their mortgage payments -- there are no bailouts for homeowners paying on time, he said. "We're hanging on until my son finishes high school, and then we are prepared to walk into Bank of America, just drop the keys on the table and walk out the front door," he said. "I am definitely getting absolutely nothing for my investment."
The huge spike in the housing market during the 2000s was caused by a combination of low interest rates, lax lending standards and Wall Street's creation of securities backed by subprime mortgages. Prices hit their $460,000 peak twice on Long Island -- first in June 2006, and again in June 2007, according to the Long Island Real Estate Report.
"Everyone was taken by the allure of free money," said Jonathan Miller, president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel.
People thought of houses as being like stocks or bonds. "It was a bubble waiting to burst," said Shelly Newman, a certified financial planner at Edward Jones in Commack. "You have to remember, a house is a home, it's not an investment." (Of course, unlike stocks or bonds, people get the benefit of living in their homes.)
The local decline began in 2007 and picked up momentum during the financial meltdown of late 2008, when the Island's median price fell nearly 10 percent -- from $425,000 to $384,000 -- from August through December 2008, according to the Long Island Real Estate Report.
Long Island's post-bubble low was $350,000, reached in November and again in January.
Long Island home prices may come under further pressure as an expected flood of short sales and foreclosures hits the market in coming months. For now, at least, the decline has stabilized: Since October, the median price has hovered between $350,000 and $360,000.
"If people are feeling good about the future and confident about their employment, that's what's key," said Richard Guardino Jr., executive dean of the Wilbur F. Breslin Center for Real Estate Studies at Hofstra University and former supervisor of the Town of Hempstead.
The local economy probably won't fully recover until housing does -- probably not before early 2014, said Pearl Kamer, chief economist at the Long Island Association: "Housing affects all sectors of the economy, and that's why we're looking to the housing market to generate a more robust economic recovery on Long Island."