Contracts to Buy U.S. Homes Near 19-Month High: Economy

Pending Sales of U.S. Existing Homes Declined
A "Sold" sign stands outside an existing home offered through Re/Max International Inc. in Clayton, North Carolina. Photographer: Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg

The number of Americans signing contracts to buy previously owned homes in December held near a 19-month high, showing the stabilization in the market that began in late 2011 will extend into the new year.

The index of pending home sales decreased 3.5 percent last month after jumping a combined 18 percent in October and November, figures from the National Association of Realtors showed today in Washington. It was the best back-to-back reading since a buyer tax credit boosted demand in early 2010.

“We’ve had a clear turn toward positive momentum in the housing market,” Aaron Smith, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and the third most accurate forecaster of pending home sales. “Lower unemployment and higher confidence, coupled with record low mortgage rates, are coalescing to spur increased buying.”

The ability of the market to sustain gains in the absence of government incentives may mean housing has stopped weighing on growth. President Barack Obama yesterday proposed a plan aimed at reducing monthly mortgage payments, which would help combat a drop in home prices that Federal Reserve policy makers say is impeding the world’s largest economy.

Central bankers said today that they’ll keep their benchmark interest rate low until at least late 2014 to help stoke the economy.

Fed Statement

“While indicators point to some further improvement in overall labor market conditions, the unemployment rate remains elevated,” the Fed said in its statement. “Household spending has continued to advance, but growth in business fixed investment has slowed, and the housing sector remains depressed.”

The decrease in pending sales exceeded the median forecast of 40 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News that projected a 1 percent decline. Estimates ranged from a drop of 8.1 percent to an increase of 7 percent.

Sales increased 4.4 percent from December 2010.

Stocks declined as forecasts at Boeing Co. and Yahoo! Inc. trailed expectations. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 0.1 percent to 1,313.4 at 11:35 a.m. in New York. The S&P Supercomposite Homebuilding Index rose 1 percent.

Elsewhere today, the U.K. economy shrank 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter as factories reduced production and services stagnated, leaving Britain on the brink of another recession, data from the Office for National Statistics showed in London.

Japan Deficit

In Asia, Japan posted its first annual trade gap since 1980 as nuclear plant shutdowns following last year’s earthquake prompted companies to import energy. A third straight monthly deficit in December capped an annual shortfall of 2.49 trillion yen ($32 billion), the finance ministry in Tokyo said.

Another report today showed U.S. home prices rose 1 percent in November from the prior month, the biggest increase in six years, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Nonetheless, values were down 1.8 percent over the past 12 months as foreclosures held back a recovery.

Among other recent housing figures, purchases of previously owned homes climbed 5 percent in December to a 4.61 million annual rate, the highest level since January 2011, the NAR reported last week.

Also in December, builders broke ground on 470,000 single-family houses at an annual rate, the most since April 2010, according to figures from the Commerce Department.

Economy Improving

“The economy is beginning to firm up,” Douglas Yearley Jr., chief executive officer of Toll Brothers Inc., said in a Jan. 11 interview with Bloomberg Television. “We see more people coming out to buy. The affordability has never been better.”

Three of four regions of the U.S. showed a decrease in contract signings from a month earlier, led by an 11 percent slump in the West. Pending sales also fell in the Northeast and South.

The report showed an index level for pending home sales of 96.6 on a seasonally adjusted basis, down from 100.1 in November. It was the highest two months since March and April 2010. A reading of 100 is consistent with the average level of contract activity in 2001 and coincides with “historically healthy” home-buying traffic, according to the NAR.

At the end of 2009, the Obama administration extended a tax credit for first-time buyers through April 2010 and expanded it to include some current owners. The government incentive, worth as much as $8,000, helped bolster sales of previously owned homes before they dropped off in the middle of 2010, at one point touching the lowest level in at least a decade.

Leading Indicator

Economists consider pending home sales a leading indicator because they track contract signings. Existing homes sales are tabulated when a contract closes, usually a month or two later.

Faster job creation may help push more people into the market for homeownership. The economy added 200,000 jobs in December, and the unemployment rate declined to an almost three-year low of 8.5 percent, Labor Department figures showed earlier this month.

Homebuyers are also enjoying cheaper borrowing costs. The average rate of a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to a record-low 3.88 percent as of Jan. 19, according to data by Freddie Mac.

Lower rates combined with prices that have slumped for four out of the five past years are making homes increasingly affordable. The median price of a previously-owned home declined to $166,100 in 2011, the lowest annual average since $165,000 in 2002, NAR data show.

More Affordable

The agents group’s affordability index was at 194.5 in November, second only to the prior month’s level as the highest on record. A reading of 100 means a household earning the median income can afford a median-priced home at current lending rates.

“Housing affordability conditions are too good to pass up,” NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said in a statement accompanying the release. “Our hope is lending conditions will gradually improve with sustained increases in closed existing-home sales.”

President Obama is proposing a plan to help reduce monthly mortgage payments. The program will give “every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage by refinancing at historically low interest rates,” Obama said during last night’s State of the Union address. “No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks.”

Obama Plan

Costs would be covered by a fee on financial companies with more than $50 billion in assets, according to two senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the plan. Obama said “a small fee on the largest financial institutions will ensure that it won’t add to the deficit.”

The proposal follows Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s call for lawmakers and the Obama administration to offer more aid for housing. The Fed, which is holding short-term borrowing costs near zero and buying government-backed mortgage bonds, said in a paper sent to Congress this month that a previous Obama administration effort to make refinancing easier had failed to go far enough.

The central bank will issue its latest forecasts for the economy and interest rates later today.

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