Sales of existing homes decline

WASHINGTON — Purchases of previously owned homes declined in February to the lowest level since July 2012, a sign the industry may be slow to recover.

Contract closings on existing properties fell 0.4 percent to a 4.6 million annual rate, matching the median projection in a Bloomberg survey, figures from the National Association of Realtors showed Thursday in Washington. Prices rose 9.1 percent from a year earlier, the group said.

The slowdown in sales since the middle of last year reflects a pickup in borrowing costs, declining affordability and, more recently, bad weather. Faster job growth that generates bigger income gains are needed to spur demand and allow housing to contribute more to the economy.

“There are some headwinds out there,” said Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica Inc. in Dallas, who correctly forecast the pace of sales. “Housing affordability has come down a bit as mortgage rates have come up from recent historic lows. The weather was a factor and we expect that to be turning around shortly.”

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey of economists ranged from 4.5 million to 4.76 million. The prior month’s pace was unrevised at 4.62 million.

Among other reports Thursday, the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits held last week near the lowest level in almost four months, a sign the labor market continues to strengthen.

The index of leading indicators rose more than forecast in February, a sign the world’s largest economy will strengthen after a weather-induced slowdown in the first quarter. The Conference Board’s gauge of the outlook for the next three to six months climbed 0.5 percent, the biggest gain since November.

Another report showed manufacturing around the Philadelphia area expanded more than forecast in March.

The median price of an existing home rose from February 2013, to $189,000, Thursday’s report showed. Sales of home priced $250,000 and less declined, while those selling for more increased.

First-time buyers accounted for 28 percent of all purchases in February, up from 26 percent in January that was the lowest in data going back to October 2008.

Compared with a year earlier, purchases decreased 6.9 percent on an unadjusted basis.

The number of previously owned homes on the market rose 6.4 percent to 2 million. At the current sales pace, it would take 5.2 months to sell those houses, the highest since April 2013, compared with 4.9 months at the end of the prior month. Less than a five months’ supply is considered a tight market, the Realtors group has said.

Sales of existing single-family homes decreased 0.2 percent to an annual rate of 4.04 million. Purchases of multifamily properties – including condominiums and townhouses – fell 1.8 percent to a 560,000 pace.

Purchases declined in two of four regions, led by an 11.3 percent drop in the Northeast. Sales rose in the South and West.

Of all purchases, cash transactions accounted for about 35 percent, the report showed.

Distressed sales, comprised of foreclosures and short sales, in which the lender agrees to a transaction for less than the balance of the mortgage, accounted for 16 percent of the total.

“Prices are rising much faster than people’s incomes,” Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said at a news conference today as the figures were released. “The biggest factor is affordability,” which has been declining. Faster job growth can help ease the sting of higher prices and borrowing costs, he said.

Existing-home sales, tabulated when a purchase contract closes, have recovered from a 13-year low of 4.11 million in 2008, three years after a record 7.08 million houses were sold in 2005. Still, higher prices and borrowing costs have put properties out of reach for some Americans, helping explain a slowdown in sales since July.

Colder weather and snowstorms in parts of the country have made it difficult to gauge the true health of housing and other indicators such as retail sales and manufacturing. February ended with its coldest final week since 2003, according to Berwyn, Pa.-based weather data provider Planalytics Inc. The second week of the month was the snowiest such period since 2007.

Other data have shown new projects have been slow to get under way because of the bad conditions, also depressing builder sentiment. Housing starts were little changed in February at a 907,000 annualized rate, Commerce Department data showed this week. In November, new construction was running at a 1.1 million pace.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo index of builder confidence rose less than forecast in March.

Warmer temperatures may revive construction in coming months, and some companies are more upbeat. Among those is Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., New Jersey’s largest homebuilder.

“We believe this is a temporary pause in the industry’s recovery,” Chief Executive Officer Ara Hovnanian said in a statement on March 5. “Based on the level of housing starts across the country, we continue to believe the homebuilding industry is still in the early stages of recovery.”

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