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Existing-Home Sales Rise in March

Media Contact: Walter Molony / 202-383-1177 / Email

WASHINGTON (April 20, 2011) - Sales of existing-home sales rose in March, continuing an uneven recovery that began after sales bottomed last July, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Existing-home sales1, which are completed transactions that include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, increased 3.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.10 million in March from an upwardly revised 4.92 million in February, but are 6.3 percent below the 5.44 million pace in March 2010. Sales were at elevated levels from March through June of 2010 in response to the home buyer tax credit.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, expects the improving sales pattern to continue. “Existing-home sales have risen in six of the past eight months, so we’re clearly on a recovery path,” he said. “With rising jobs and excellent affordability conditions, we project moderate improvements into 2012, but not every month will show a gain – primarily because some buyers are finding it too difficult to obtain a mortgage. For those fortunate enough to qualify for financing, monthly mortgage payments as a percent of income have been at record lows.”

NAR’s housing affordability index shows the typical monthly mortgage principal and interest payment for the purchase of a median-priced existing home is only 13 percent of gross household income, the lowest since records began in 1970.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage was 4.84 percent in March, down from 4.95 percent in February; the rate was 4.97 percent in March 2010.

Data from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae show requirements to obtain conventional mortgages have been tightened, with the average credit score rising to about 760 in the current market from nearly 720 in 2007; for FHA loans the average credit score is around 700, up from just over 630 in 2007.

“Although home sales are coming back without a federal stimulus, sales would be notably stronger if mortgage lending would return to the normal, safe standards that were in place a decade ago – before the loose lending practices that created the unprecedented boom and bust cycle,” Yun explained.

“Given that FHA and VA government-backed loan programs turned a modest profit over to the U.S. Treasury last year, and have never required a taxpayer bailout, we believe low-downpayment loans should continue to be available for those consumers who have demonstrated financial responsibility and are willing to stay well within their budget. Raising the downpayment requirement would unnecessarily deny credit to many worthy middle-class families and veterans,” Yun said.

A parallel NAR practitioner survey2 shows first-time buyers purchased 33 percent of homes in March, compared with 34 percent of homes in February; they were 44 percent in March 2010.

All-cash sales were at a record market share of 35 percent in March, up from 33 percent in February; they were 27 percent in March 2010. Investors accounted for 22 percent of sales activity in March, up from 19 percent in February; they were 19 percent in March 2010. The balance of sales were to repeat buyers.

The national median existing-home price3 for all housing types was $159,600 in March, down 5.9 percent from March 2010. Distressed homes – typically sold at discounts in the vicinity of 20 percent – accounted for a 40 percent market share in March, up from 39 percent in February and 35 percent in March 2010.

NAR President Ron Phipps, broker-president of Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I., said some renters are looking to home ownership as a hedge against inflation. “The typical buyer today plans to stay in a home for 10 years, while rents are projected to rise at faster rates over the next few years,” he said. “As buyers gain more financial security, the advantages of home ownership become more obvious. Rents will continue to trend up, especially in comparison with a fixed-rate loan which provides financial stability and gradual accumulation of equity over time.”

Total housing inventory at the end of March rose 1.5 percent to 3.55 million existing homes available for sale, which represents an 8.4-month supply4 at the current sales pace, compared with a 8.5-month supply in February.

Single-family home sales rose 4.0 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.45 million in March from 4.28 million in February, but are 6.5 percent below the 4.76 million level in March 2010. The median existing single-family home price was $160,500 in March, down 5.3 percent from a year ago.

Existing condominium and co-op sales increased 1.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 650,000 in March from 640,000 in February, but are 4.1 percent below the 678,000-unit pace one year ago. The median existing condo price5 was $153,100 in March, which is 10.1 percent below March 2010.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 3.9 percent to an annual level of 800,000 in March but are 12.1 percent below March 2010. The median price in the Northeast was $232,900, down 3.0 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the Midwest increased 1.0 percent in March to a pace of 1.06 million but are 13.1 percent lower than a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $126,100, which is 7.1 percent below March 2010.

In the South, existing-home sales rose 8.2 percent to an annual level of 1.99 million in March but are 1.0 percent below March 2010. The median price in the South was $138,200, down 6.6 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the West slipped 0.8 percent to an annual pace of 1.25 million in March and are 3.1 percent below a year ago. The median price in the West was $192,100, which is 11.2 percent lower than March 2010.

The National Association of Realtors®, “The Voice for Real Estate,” is America’s largest trade association, representing 1.1 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries.

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NOTE: NAR also tracks monthly comparisons of existing single-family home sales and median prices for select metropolitan statistical areas, which is posted with other tables at: www.realtor.org/research/research/ehsdata. For information on areas not included in the report, please contact the local association of Realtors®.

1Existing-home sales, which include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, are based on transaction closings. This differs from the U.S. Census Bureau’s series on new single-family home sales, which are based on contracts or the acceptance of a deposit. Because of these differences, it is not uncommon for each series to move in different directions in the same month. In addition, existing-home sales, which generally account for 85 to 90 percent of total home sales, are based on a much larger sample – more than 40 percent of multiple listing service data each month – and typically are not subject to large prior-month revisions.

The annual rate for a particular month represents what the total number of actual sales for a year would be if the relative pace for that month were maintained for 12 consecutive months. Seasonally adjusted annual rates are used in reporting monthly data to factor out seasonal variations in resale activity. For example, home sales volume is normally higher in the summer than in the winter, primarily because of differences in the weather and family buying patterns. However, seasonal factors cannot compensate for abnormal weather patterns.

Single-family data collection began monthly in 1968, while condo data collection began quarterly in 1981; the series were combined in 1999 when monthly collection of condo data began. Prior to this period, single-family homes accounted for more than nine out of 10 purchases. Historic comparisons for total home sales prior to 1999 are based on monthly single-family sales, combined with the corresponding quarterly sales rate for condos.

Benchmark Revisions: All major statistical data series go through periodic reviews and revisions to ensure that sampling and methodology keep up with changes in the market, such as population changes in sampled areas, to ensure accuracy. NAR began its normal process for benchmarking sales earlier this year; there will be no change to median prices. In the past we’ve benchmarked to the decennial Census, most recently to the 2000 Census, because it included home sales data. However, the data are no longer included in the Census, so we’re looking at more frequent benchmarking using a new approach with independent sources to improve our process and modeling. As always, we are consulting with various outside housing economists, government agencies and academic experts for a consensus on the methodology; NAR is committed to providing accurate, reliable data. Publication of the revisions is expected this summer.

2Distressed sales, first-time buyers, investors and all-cash transactions are from a survey for the Realtors® Confidence Index, scheduled to be posted April 29.

3The only valid comparisons for median prices are with the same period a year earlier due to the seasonality in buying patterns. Month-to-month comparisons do not compensate for seasonal changes, especially for the timing of family buying patterns. Changes in the composition of sales can distort median price data. Year-ago median and mean prices sometimes are revised in an automated process if more data is received than was originally reported.

4Total inventory and month’s supply data are available back through 1999, while single-family inventory and month’s supply are available back to 1982 (prior to 1999, condos were measured quarterly while single-family sales accounted for more than 90 percent of transactions).

5Because there is a concentration of condos in high-cost metro areas, the national median condo price often is higher than the median single-family price. In a given market area, condos typically cost less than single-family homes.

The Pending Home Sales Index for March will be released April 28, and existing-home sales for April is scheduled for May 19. First quarter metro area home prices and state existing-home sales will be published May 10; all release times are 10:00 a.m. EDT.

Information about NAR is available at www.realtor.org. This and other news releases are posted in the News Media section. Statistical data in this release, other tables and surveys also may be found by clicking on Research.