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Home prices improve for third straight month

Home prices rose for the third month in a row, a closely watched index said Tuesday. The index is down about 33 percent from the peak in mid-2006.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. home prices rose for the third month in a row in July, new data Tuesday showed, more proof a fragile housing recover is underway.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index of 20 major cities rose 1.2 percent from June to a reading of 143.05. Though home prices are still 13.3 percent below July a year ago, the annual declines have slowed in all 20 cities for the sixth straight month.

"We expected another gain but this is remarkable," wrote Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. Economist for High-Frequency Economics. He noted the index has risen at an 8 percent annualized rate in the three months to July, the best performance since early 2006 and the first increase on this basis since mid-2006.

However, the index is down about 33 percent from the peak in mid-2006. Home prices are now at levels not seen since the third quarter of 2003. And prices in Las Vegas, Detroit and Seattle are still falling.

Prices in Las Vegas, one of the most speculative markets during the boom, are down more almost 55 percent from their peak. In August, almost 80 percent of home resales in Nevada were either a foreclosure or a sale below the value of the mortgage, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors.

The Detroit housing market is reeling from layoffs in the automotive industry. Seattle, by contrast, was one of the last areas to enter the downturn so prices there have yet to hit bottom.

And there are still several risks to the national recovery, including rising unemployment and foreclosures and the expiration of a tax credit for first-time homebuyers.

First-time homeowners can qualify for a tax credit worth 10 percent of the purchase price, up to $8,000, but it expires at the end of November. More than a dozen bills to extend the credit have been introduced in Congress, but it's unclear if lawmakers want to continue subsidizing the real estate market.

Real estate agents and homebuilders are lobbying hard for an extension. They point to continued areas of weakness, such as foreclosures. On Tuesday, Fannie Mae said that nearly 4.2 percent of its home loans were at least three months delinquent in July, up from 3.9 percent in June.

Foreclosures now are being driven by job losses, which are also weighing on the minds of consumers. The Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index dipped unexpectedly this month to 53.1 after three months of gains, down from the revised 54.5 reading in August.

Nevertheless, there are clear positive trends in the housing markets. Home prices rose in 13 metro areas for at least three straight months. The biggest gains in July were in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Chicago.

The Case-Shiller indexes measure home price increases and decreases relative to prices in January 2000. The base reading is 100; so a reading of 150 would mean that home prices increased 50 percent since the beginning of the index.

Home sales are also rebounding from their January lows. Sales of newly built homes are up 30 percent from the bottom, but are off about 70 percent from the peak of four years ago. Sales of previously owned homes are nearly 14 percent higher, but are still down nearly 30 percent from their peak.