Big Rebound in Existing-Home Sales Shows First-Time Buyer Momentum

Existing-home sales bounced back strongly in September with first-time buyers driving much of the activity, marking five gains in the past six months, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Existing-home sales – including single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops – jumped 9.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate1 of 5.57 million units in September from a level of 5.09 million in August, and are 9.2 percent higher than the 5.10 million-unit pace in September 2008. Sales activity is at the highest level in over two years, since it hit 5.73 million in July 2007.

NAR’s chief economist said favorable conditions matched with a tax credit are boosting home sales. “Much of the momentum is from people responding to the first-time buyer tax credit, which is freeing many sellers to make a trade and buy another home,” he said. “We are hopeful the tax credit will be extended and possibly expanded to more buyers, at least through the middle of next year, because the rising sales momentum needs to continue for a few additional quarters until we reach a point of a self-sustaining recovery.”

Even with the improvement, Yun said the market is underperforming. “Despite spectacular gains in the stock market, principally from the financial sector recovery, most of the 75 million home owning families have more wealth tied to their homes. Home values could soon turn consistently positive and help the broad base of middle-class families, but we are not there yet,” he said. “We’re getting early indications of price stabilization, but we need a steady supply of qualified buyers to meaningfully bring inventories down and return us to a period of normal, steady price growth and to fully remove consumer fears, which would then revive the broader economy. Without a firm foundation for middle-class wealth recovery, the post-recession economic growth likely will be one of the weakest in U.S. history.”

Early information from a large annual consumer study to be released November 13, the 2009 National Association of Realtors® Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, shows that first-time home buyers accounted for more than 45 percent of home sales during the past year. A separate practitioner survey shows that distressed homes accounted for 29 percent of transactions in September.

NAR’s President said affordability conditions remain historically high. “Potential first-time buyers can take heart in that affordability conditions this year are the highest on record dating back to 1970, but with the first-time buyer tax credit scheduled to expire at the end of next month, people could hold back from entering the market,” he said.

“Our read is that housing overshot on the downside because homes are selling for less than replacement construction costs in much of the country, and the home price-to-income ratio has fallen below the historical average,” McMillan said.

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