Video: Existing home sales surge staff and news service reports
updated 10/24/2008 6:06:50 PM ET 2008-10-24T22:06:50

Sales of existing homes rose by the largest amount in more than five years in September. But analysts cautioned against reading too much into the gain, noting that it reflected conditions before the latest upheaval in financial markets increased the likelihood of a recession in the overall economy.

The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of existing homes rose by 5.5 percent from August to September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.18 million units — far better than the flat results analysts had expected. On an unadjusted basis, sales were up 7.8 percent from September last year.

But even with the gain in sales, prices kept falling. The median sales price has dropped to $191,600, down by 9 percent from a year ago.

In Richmond, Va., Jack Jebo sold his three-bedroom house last month for $267,000, after lowering his price $18,000. He carried two mortgages for two months before the house was sold in the Richmond area.

“In retrospect, (the experience) probably wasn’t too bad,” said Jebo, 32, an attorney. “At the time, it probably felt pretty difficult because we didn’t get an offer before we lowered the price.”

But analysts said that the current financial crisis, which has contributed to the biggest upheavals on Wall Street since the 1930s, was sending consumer confidence down, unemployment up and had greatly increased the prospects that the country was either in or about to enter a full-blown recession. All these factors were expected to add to the headwinds buffeting housing in the months ahead.

“In October, mortgage applications sank to six-year lows,” said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets. “This suggests house sales, like the rest of the economy, fell off a cliff because of the worsening credit crunch.”

Many analysts are predicting that home prices — already down 18 percent nationally from their peak in mid-2006 — could decline another 10 percent, as a continued glut of foreclosed homes being dumped on the market depresses prices further.

The National Association of Realtors estimated that 35 percent to 40 percent of sales currently are distressed sales — either foreclosed homes or short sales in which the owner is selling the house for less than the value of the mortgage.

Distressed sales are having a big impact in lowering prices in some formerly red-hot sales markets in such regions as the West, where sales prices fell in September by 18.5 percent from a year ago.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors, said there were some glimmers of hope that the bottom of the housing slump may be near. He said that a sales turnaround first seen in California was beginning to broaden to other regions of the country including Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Rhode Island.

And the number of unsold existing homes on the market dropped by 1.6 percent in September to 4.27 million units. That marked the second month in a row inventories have dipped, but the level still represented a 9.9-month supply — about double what’s normal.

Yun cautioned that this rebound could be aborted by what he said was the high likelihood that the country has fallen into a recession. For that reason, he said, it was important for Congress to pass a second stimulus package including measures that would bolster the housing market.

Other economists, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, are expressing concerns that the financial market turmoil will further weaken housing activity and prolong the current slump.

Greenspan told Congress on Thursday that the country had been hit by a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami.” He said he did not expect the overall economy to make a sustained rebound until housing, where the economic troubles began, stabilized. He said that was still many months away.

Congress on Oct. 3 passed a $700 billion rescue package for the financial system. Shelia Bair, the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is pushing Treasury to include in that package a new program to prevent more mortgage foreclosures as a way to provide further support for housing.

Under Bair’s proposal, the government would provide guarantees for mortgages that have been reworked by banks to lower the payment schedules to more affordable levels.

By region of the country, sales in the West soared by 43 percent, on an unadjusted basis, from September last year, and rose a more moderate 5 percent in the Midwest. In the South, sales dipped 1.2 percent and in the Northeast they slipped 1.4 percent.

Housing has been suffering through its worst downturn in decades following a five-year boom that ended in 2006. Since that time sales and prices have plummeted.

Builders have responded to the huge glut of unsold homes by sharply cutting back on construction as their confidence levels have fallen to record lows. The National Association of Home Builders is projecting that construction of new homes and apartments will total just 936,000 units for this year, which would be the weakest performance since 1945.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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