Existing-Home Sales Down in January but Higher than a Year Ago; Prices Steady

Existing-home sales fell in January but are above year-ago levels, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Existing-home sales – including single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops – dropped 7.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate1 of 5.05 million units in January from a revised 5.44 million in December, but remain 11.5 percent above the 4.53 million-unit level in January 2009.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said there is still some delay between shopping and closing that affected current sales. “Most of the completed deals in January were based on contracts in November and December. People who got into the market after the home buyer tax credit was extended in November have only recently started to offer contracts, so it will take a couple months to close those sales,” he said. “Still, the latest monthly sales decline is not encouraging, and raises concern about the strength of a recovery.”

“Activity should be picking up strongly in late spring as buyers take advantage of the tax credit, which is critical to absorb distressed properties reaching the market and to continually chip away at inventory,” Yun said. “With a downtrend in the number of homes on the market, especially in the lower price ranges, values are beginning to firm but with great variance around the country.”

A parallel NAR practitioner survey4 shows first-time buyers purchased 40 percent of homes in January, down from 43 percent in December. Investors accounted for 17 percent of transactions in January, up from 15 percent in December; the remaining sales were to repeat buyers. The survey also shows that buyer traffic increased 9.4 percent in January.

NAR President Vicki Cox Golder, owner of Vicki L. Cox & Associates in Tucson, Ariz., said buying a home in the current environment has become more challenging. “First-time buyers and others who need a mortgage are increasingly losing out to all-cash investors for the best bargains in many areas, particularly for foreclosed homes where cash is king,” she said.

“Inventory conditions vary by price range, and of course there are major differences depending on location. Realtors® are the best buyer resource for strategies on winning bids in increasingly competitive markets,” Golder said. “The bidding for more desirable homes will only accelerate between now and the April 30 contract deadline to qualify for a tax credit of up to $8,000.”

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage edged up to 5.03 percent in January from 4.93 percent in December; the rate was 5.05 percent in January 2009.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast fell 10.9 percent to an annual pace of 820,000 in January but are 22.4 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $245,300, a gain of 8.8 percent from January 2009.

In the South, existing-home sales dropped 7.4 percent to an annual pace of 1.87 million in January but are 12.0 percent above a year ago. The median price in the South was $140,200, down 2.0 percent from January 2009.

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