The number of people preparing to buy a home in November fell sharply in the latest sign that the housing market, which had been rebounding strongly, may be headed for a "double-dip" downturn over the winter.
Consumers are taking their time following the extension of a tax credit deadline, and that is draining momentum from the summer's recovery, according to data Tuesday from the National Association of Realtors. The figures echoed what homebuilders saw in November and showed how dependent the housing market is on government programs to lower interest rates and lure buyers with tax credits. If those programs expire as planned early this year, the housing market will have to stand on its own.
But outside of housing, there are other signs the economy is climbing out of the recession. Orders to U.S. factories posted a big gain in November, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. That data was the latest evidence of a strong turnaround in manufacturing as industries from China to Europe flash recovery signs.
Taken together, the reports show that, while housing remains vulnerable, makers of steel, computers and chemicals are mounting a surprisingly robust rebound.
"We expect housing to just limp along even as the rest of the economy is growing fairly strongly," said Nomura Securities economist Zach Pandl.
The stock market, meanwhile, zigzagged after the reports gave mixed signals about the economy.
The National Association of Realtors said its seasonally adjusted index of sales agreements fell 16 percent from October to a November reading of 96. It was the first decline following nine straight months of gains and the lowest reading since June.
The drop was far larger than the 2 percent expected from economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters, and analysts were surprised.
"This was bound to happen at some point, although not by this much," wrote a startled Jennifer Lee, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets. "Gulp," she added.
"It will be at least early spring before we see notable gains in sales activity as homebuyers respond to the recently extended and expanded tax credit," Lawrence Yun, the Realtors' chief economist, said in a statement.
Typically there is a one- to two-month lag between a contract and a done deal, so the index is a barometer of future sales. Pending sales were down 26 percent from October in the Northeast and Midwest, 15 percent in the South and 3 percent in the West.
The housing market had been rebounding from the worst downturn in decades, aided by aggressive federal intervention to lower mortgage rates and bring more buyers into the market. Sales of existing homes surged in November to the highest level in nearly three years, but analysts expect December sales to show a big drop.
And concerns remain that the market recovery will stall as the federal programs are phased out.
"This sudden drop risks the stability housing markets have enjoyed in recent months," wrote Guy LeBas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott.
The nation's factories, however, are faring much better. The Commerce Department orders rose by 1.1 percent in November, more than double the 0.5 percent increase economists had forecast. The increases were widespread with the exception of autos and aircraft, which posted declines.
The Institute of Supply Management had reported Monday that its key gauge of U.S. factory activity showed manufacturing was expanding in December at the fastest pace in more than three years.
Economists are hoping that the fortunes of the manufacturing sector are beginning to rebound as the economy struggles to emerge from the worst recession since the 1930s.