New U.S. Home Sales Rose to Second-Highest Level Since 2008

Sales of new U.S. homes climbed in April to the second-highest level in almost five years as lower borrowing costs and job gains drew more buyers into the market.

Purchases rose 2.3 percent to an annualized pace of 454,000 homes from 444,000 in March that was faster than first estimated, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. The median estimate of 76 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a gain to 425,000. The data included revisions back to January 2011. The median selling price rose to a record on sales of more expensive properties.

Demand for new and previously owned homes is sustaining progress in residential construction that is poised to keep fueling the economic expansion. Builders such as PulteGroup Inc., home-improvement retailers like Lowe’s Cos. and lenders are benefiting from higher property values, lower mortgage rates and a pickup in household formation.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Kevin Cummins, an economist at UBS Securities LLC in Stamford, Connecticut, who projected a sales pace of 440,000. “It’s pretty much consistent with an improvement we’ve seen in the labor market and income.”

Stocks held losses after the figures as data showed Chinese manufacturing unexpectedly shrank. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 0.7 percent to 1,644.18 at 10:16 a.m. in New York.

The April pace of home sales was second only to January’s 458,000 that was the highest since July 2008. Economists’ estimates ranged from 406,000 to 440,000 after a previously reported 417,000 pace in March.

Median Price

The median selling price increased 14.9 percent in April from the same month last year to a record $271,600, today’s report showed. The gain reflected increases in sales of homes costing $400,000 or more. Purchases of homes priced less than $300,000 decreased.

Purchases rose in two of four U.S. regions, led by a 10.8 percent jump in the West. Sales in the South rose, while purchases dropped in the Northeast and Midwest.

The supply of homes at the current sales rate held at 4.1 months. There were 156,000 new houses on the market at the end of the month, the most since October 2011.

Sales of new properties, which are tallied when purchase contracts are signed, are considered a more timely measure of the market than sales of previously owned dwellings, which are counted when a sale is final. New-home sales accounted for about 7 percent of the residential market in 2012.

Existing Homes

Purchases of previously owned homes climbed in April to the highest level in more than three years, to an annual rate of

4.97 million, the National Association of Realtors reported yesterday. The median price of a property rose 11 percent, to $192,800, from a year earlier. It was the fifth consecutive month that property values advanced more than 10 percent year over year, the data show.

Demographic shifts are helping fuel growing demand. More young people are forming households and retirees are moving into new homes, according to Robert O’Shaughnessy, chief financial officer at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based PulteGroup, the largest U.S. homebuilder by revenue.

“There is a limited number of units on the ground,” O’Shaughnessy said at a May 21 conference. “In many markets you’ve got below three months’ supply of actual housing available for sale. So when folks are actually out shopping, new becomes an even better alternative, being it’s one of the only things around.”

Confidence among homebuilders improved in May as prospective buyer traffic picked up along with sales, a report showed last week. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo index of builder confidence rose to 44 from a revised 41 in April, the Washington-based group said.

Mortgage Rates

The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 3.59 percent this week, down from 3.78 percent a year earlier, according for data from Freddie Mac. The rate reached a record low of 3.31 percent in November.

Record monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve is helping keep borrowing costs low. Chairman Ben S. Bernanke yesterday signaled little appetite for paring the central bank’s bond purchase program.

“A premature tightening of monetary policy could lead interest rates to rise temporarily but would also carry a substantial risk of slowing or ending the economic recovery and causing inflation to fall further,” Bernanke told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress in Washington.

Payroll Tax

Further progress in housing may be gradual as as Americans begin to feel the effects of higher taxes that took effect in January at the same time government budget cuts take hold, Lowe’s Chairman and Chief Executive Office Robert Niblock said.

“The housing market continues to show convincing signs of life,” Niblock said on a May 22 earnings call. “However, growth in other key indicators, particularly employment, slowed in the first quarter. We expect growth to remain modest through mid-year as consumers adjust to higher taxes and the fiscal drag intensifies.”