February Existing-Home Sales Ease with Mixed Conditions Around the Country

Existing-home sales declined slightly in February, with modest gains in the Northeast and Midwest offset by softer sales in the South and West, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Existing-home sales 1, which are finalized transactions that include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, slipped 0.6 percent nationally to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.02 million units in February from 5.05 million in January, but are 7.0 percent higher than the 4.69 million-unit pace in February 2009.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said widespread winter storms in February may mask underlying demand. “Some closings were simply postponed by winter storms, but buyers couldn’t get out to look at homes in some areas and that should negatively impact near-term contract activity,” he said.

“Although sales have been higher than year-ago levels for eight straight months and home prices are much more stable compared to the past few years, the housing recovery is fragile at the moment.”

Total housing inventory at the end of February rose 9.5 percent to 3.59 million existing homes available for sale, which represents an 8.6-month supply2 at the current sales pace, up from a 7.8-month supply in January. Raw unsold inventory is 5.5 percent below a year ago.

“The key test for a durable recovery comes in the next few months as the tax credit deadline approaches,” Yun said. “If we see a surge in home buying comparable to last fall in the months leading up to the original tax credit deadline, then enough inventory should be absorbed to ensure a broad home price stabilization.”

The national median existing-home price3 for all housing types was $165,100 in February, which is 1.8 percent below February 2009. Distressed homes, generally sold at discount, accounted for 35 percent of sales last month.

A parallel NAR practitioner survey4 shows first-time buyers purchased 42 percent of homes in February, up from 40 percent in January. Investors accounted for 19 percent of transactions in February, compared with 17 percent in January; the remaining sales were to repeat buyers.

NAR President Vicki Cox Golder, owner of Vicki L. Cox & Associates in Tucson, Ariz., said some buyers are just beginning to realize the urgency of acting before the contract deadline for the tax credit. “If home buyers want this tax credit there is literally no time to waste,” she said.

“Most buyers spend several months looking at a dozen homes before they make a contract offer, but less than six weeks are left before the April 30 contract deadline. If you’re sure about the kind of home you want and the neighborhood where you’d like to live, you need to begin working with a Realtor® now to help you find what you want, negotiate on your behalf and ensure that you meet the necessary deadlines, including loan qualification,” Golder said.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage dipped to 4.99 percent in February from 5.03 percent in January; the rate was 5.13 percent in February 2009.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 2.4 percent to an annual pace of 840,000 in February and are 12.0 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $254,700, up 7.5 percent from February 2009.

In the South, existing-home sales slipped 1.1 percent to an annual pace of 1.85 million in February but are 6.9 percent above a year ago. The median price in the South was $139,600, down 4.2 percent from February 2009.

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