Sales of New Homes in U.S. Rebounded in February on Jump in West

Purchases of new homes climbed in February for the fourth time in the last five months as demand snapped back in the western U.S.

Sales increased 2 percent to a 512,000 annualized pace following a 502,000 rate in January that was stronger than previously reported, Commerce Department figures showed Wednesday. Demand is in line with last year’s pace, indicating residential construction will remain a source of support for the economy.

Low mortgage rates and a labor market that’s added almost a quarter of a million workers a month on average over the last two years is giving Americans the confidence and means to buy a home. Increased availability of entry-level properties would help persuade lower-income and first-time buyers to move off the sidelines and give the industry an added boost.

“Job growth is solid, income growth is starting to pick up, mortgage rates are still amazing low and underlying demographics are pretty positive for housing,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio. “The underlying trend in housing is up.”

The data are volatile month to month and the February figure should be considered preliminary. The report said there was 90 percent confidence the change in sales last month ranged from a 16.8 percent drop to a 20.8 percent increase.

The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey called for a 510,000 rate. Economists’ estimates ranged from sales rates of 475,000 to 550,000 after a previously reported 494,000 in January. Purchases were 2.8 percent lower in February than the same period in 2015 on an unadjusted basis, the Commerce Department’s report showed.

West Region

The increase in February was entirely due to a 38.5 percent surge in the West, the biggest gain since December 2010. Sales in that region had dropped 32.7 percent a month earlier.

Purchases last month declined in the other three U.S. regions, with the biggest retreats coming in the Midwest and Northeast.

There were 240,000 new houses on the market at the end of last month. While little changed from 236,000 in January, it was the most since October 2009. The supply of homes at the current sales rate held at 5.6 months.

The median sales price increased 2.6 percent last month from a year ago to $301,400.

New-home sales, which accounted for about 9 percent of the residential market last year, are tabulated when contracts are signed. That makes them a timelier barometer than transactions on existing homes.

Existing Homes

Closings on those previously owned homes -- which usually take place a month or two after a contract is signed -- decreased 7.1 percent in February to a three-month low of 5.08 million annual rate, the National Association of Realtors said Monday. Purchases decreased in all four regions, led by a 17.1 percent drop in the Northeast and a 13.8 percent decline in the Midwest.

Homebuilder confidence has also faded this year, holding in March at a nine-month low as sales prospects waned.

The industry and potential buyers still can take comfort that borrowing costs will remain low. Federal Reserve policy makers last week held off on raising their benchmark interest rate and scaled back forecasts for how high they’ll go this year. Fed officials are waiting to assess how slowing global growth and shaky financial markets will affect the U.S. recovery.

The average rate of a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was 3.73 in the week ended March 17, according to data from Freddie Mac. That compares with a 3.31 percent rate reached in late 2012 that was the lowest in records back to 1971.

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