August Pending Home Sales Rise to 2 1/2 Year High
October 1, 2009 - 2:00 PMAspiring homebuyers rushed to take advantage of a tax credit for first-time owners that expires in November, driving up the number of signed sales contracts for the seventh straight month in August.
Construction spending also rose unexpectedly in August on the biggest jump in housing activity in nearly 16 years, another sign the real estate market is recovering from its four-year slump, data Thursday showed.
Sales and homebuilding are being fueled by a tax-credit of up to $8,000, low mortgage rates and cheap foreclosures. In some of the most hard-hit areas, like Phoenix and Las Vegas, there are bidding wars for deeply discounted properties. And in all but a few cities, home prices are slowly starting to rise, reversing their three-year descent.
To make sure first-time buyers can complete their purchases by the Nov. 30 deadline, real estate agents "have been pushing buyers to sign a contract at least a couple months in advance" according to Abiel Reinhart, an economist with JPMorgan Chase.
More than a dozen bills have been introduced in Congress to extend the credit, but it's unclear if lawmakers want to continue to subsidize the market.
The National Association of Realtors said Thursday its index of sales agreements rose 6.4 percent from July to 103.8, beating forecasts. It was the highest since March 2007 and 12 percent above a year ago. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected the index would rise to 98.6.
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. However, new rules for home appraisals and rigid lending standards have scuttled many sales agreements recently. In addition, the index may also double-count some buyers who agree to purchase other homes after the first deal falls through.
These factors have made the index a less reliable gauge for completed sales. Despite a steady increase in the number of signed contracts this summer, for example, completed sales actually took an unexpected 2.7 percent dip in August.
"Perhaps the real question is how many transactions are being delayed in the pipeline, and how many are being canceled," Lawrence Yun, the Realtors' chief economist, said in a statement. "Without historic precedents, it's challenging to assess."
Pending sales were up 16 percent in the West and 8 percent in the Northeast. They were up 3 percent in the Midwest and nearly 1 percent in the South.
Home prices, meanwhile rose 1.2 percent from June to July, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index of 20 major cities. On a seasonally adjusted basis, prices rose in all but three metro areas, Las Vegas, Detroit, and Seattle.
Housing experts, however, remain divided on whether the price gains signal a definite bottom to the worst housing downturn in decades or just a brief respite from plummeting prices.
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