Tuesday, December 22, 2009

U.S. Economy: Home Sales Exceed Forecasts as Buyers Seek Credit

Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Sales of existing U.S. homes in November rose to the highest level in almost three years as first-time buyers rushed to take advantage of a government tax credit and lower prices.

Purchases increased 7.4 percent to a 6.54 million annual rate, exceeding the highest estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, figures from the National Association of Realtors showed today in Washington. Another report showed the economy grew a less-than-forecast 2.2 percent in the third quarter as companies cut stockpiles, pointing to manufacturing gains at the start of 2010.

The housing market is getting a boost from efforts by the government and Federal Reserve to stabilize the industry at the center of the worst recession since the 1930s. Improved consumer spending combined with record decreases in inventories will promote production, which may keep the world’s largest economy growing into 2010.

The economy is “rebounding again pretty much across the board,” said Steven Wieting, managing director of economic and market analysis at Citigroup Global Markets Inc. in New York. “We will see somewhat stronger growth,” he said, adding “it’s not going to be one of these dramatic recoveries.”

Stocks rose and Treasury securities fell after the reports. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index added 0.4 percent to 1,118.79 at 1:28 p.m. in New York, and the S&P Homebuilder Supercomposite Index was up 3.8 percent. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 3.74 percent from 3.68 percent late yesterday.

Slower Expansion

The economy grew at a 2.2 percent annual rate in the third quarter, down from a prior estimate of 2.8 percent, revised figures from the Commerce Department showed today. Companies curbed spending and cut inventories at an even faster pace, leading to a slower pace of expansion.

Existing home sales were projected to rise to a 6.25 million annual rate, according to the median forecast of 69 economists in a Bloomberg News survey. Estimates ranged from 5.2 million to 6.5 million. The NAR revised October’s reading down to a 6.09 million pace from an initially reported 6.1 million rate.

First-time buyers accounted for 51 percent of sales last month, and 71 percent of the houses sold cost less than $250,000, the report from the real-estate agents’ group showed. The figures indicate the government’s tax credit helped boost demand.

Mortgage Rates

Fed debt purchases are helping keep mortgage rates close to record lows, while President Barack Obama’s Nov. 7 extension and expansion of the tax credit through April may provide short-term impetus to sales and construction.

The central bank last week signaled it would keep lending rates low for “an extended period” to foster growth. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.94 percent last week and has averaged 4.85 percent since the end of October, according to Freddie Mac.

“Housing is on a solid footing through to the spring markets,” said Derek Holt, an economist at Scotia Capital Inc. in Toronto, who forecast a rise to 6.5 million units. “But once foreclosed, unlisted homes go back on the market and homebuyers’ incentives come off, we’re looking at a weaker back half of next year.”

Purchases of existing homes rose 44 percent in November compared with a year earlier, the biggest increase on record. The median price was $172,600, down 4.3 percent from November 2008. The figure is influenced by the mix of sales and the drop reflects the growing proportion of lower-priced houses.

Home Prices

A report from the Federal Housing Finance Agency in Washington showed home prices fell 1.9 percent in October from a year earlier. The group’s U.S. housing index is down 10.8 percent from the April 2007 peak.

The number of previously owned unsold homes on the market fell 1.3 percent to 3.52 million. At the current sales pace, it would take 6.5 months to sell those houses compared with 7 months at the end of October. The ratio is the lowest since December 2006.

The share of homes sold as foreclosures or otherwise distressed properties was 33 percent, said Lawrence Yun, the agents group’s chief economist.

“The tax credit had the intended impact of drawing buyers in and lowering inventory,” Yun said in a news conference. “An estimated 2 million buyers have taken advantage of the credit.”

Single-Family Sales

The report showed sales of existing single-family homes rose 8.5 percent to an annual rate of 5.77 million. Sales of condos and co-ops were unchanged at a 770,000 rate.

Toll Brothers Inc., the largest U.S. luxury-home builder, projected deliveries may fall by as much as 33 percent in the 12 months through October 2010, and the average selling price may drop as low as $540,000.

“We believe it may take some time for Americans to regain confidence in our economy, their job status and the benefits of home ownership,” Robert Toll, chief executive officer at Toll Brothers, said in a Dec. 3 statement. “We anticipate a gradual recovery in housing, similar to the one that occurred in the early 1990s.”

Source: Bob Willis - Bloomberg News

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