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February Existing-Home Sales Slip But Up Strongly From a Year Ago

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

WASHINGTON (March 21, 2012) - February existing-home sales declined from an upwardly revised January pace but are well above a year ago, while the median price posted a slight gain, according to the National Association of Realtors®. Sales were up in the Midwest and South, offset by declines in the Northeast and West.

Total existing-home sales1, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, slipped 0.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.59 million in February from an upwardly revised 4.63 million in January, but are 8.8 percent higher than the 4.22 million-unit level in February 2011.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said underlying factors are much better compared to one year ago. “The market is trending up unevenly, with record high consumer buying power and sustained job gains giving buyers the confidence they need to get into the market,” he said. “Although relatively unusual, there will be rising demand for both rental space and homeownership this year. The great suppression in household formation during the past four years was unsustainable, and a pent-up demand could burst forth from the improving economy.”

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage was a record low 3.89 percent in February, down from 3.92 percent in January; the rate was 4.95 percent in February 2011; recordkeeping began in 1971.

NAR President Moe Veissi, broker-owner of Veissi & Associates Inc., in Miami, said market conditions are improving. “Supply and demand have become more balanced in more markets, but with tight supply in the lower price ranges – particularly in the West,” he said. “When markets are balanced, we normally see prices rise one to two percentage points above the rate of inflation, but foreclosures and short sales are holding back median prices.”

The national median existing-home price2 for all housing types was $156,600 in February, up 0.3 percent from February 2011. Distressed homes3 – foreclosures and short sales sold at deep discounts – accounted for 34 percent of February sales (20 percent were foreclosures and 14 percent were short sales), down from 35 percent in January and 39 percent in February 2011.

“The bottom line is investors and first-time buyers are competing for bargain-priced properties in much of the country, with home prices showing signs of stabilizing in many areas,” Veissi said. “People realize that homeownership is an investment in their future. Given an apparent over-correction in most areas, over the long term home prices have nowhere to go but up.”

Total housing inventory at the end of February rose 4.3 percent to 2.43 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 6.4-month supply4 at the current sales pace, up from a 6.0-month supply in January. Even so, unsold listed inventory has trended down from a record 4.04 million in July 2007, and is 19.3 percent below a year ago.

“Falling visible and shadow inventory, combined with a dearth of new-home and apartment construction during the past three years, assure that rents will continue to rise, with likely home price increases in 2012,” Yun said.

Fifty-one percent of NAR members report that contracts settled on time in February, 18 percent had delays and 31 percent experienced contract failures; the cancellation rate was 33 percent in January and 9 percent in February 2011. Contract failures are commonly caused by declined mortgage applications and failures in loan underwriting from appraisals coming in below the negotiated price.

“Many buyers are staying in the market after experiencing a contract failure and making an offer on another property, showing their determination to take advantage of the favorable conditions, but the cancellations are contributing to an uneven sales pattern,” Yun said.

All-cash sales rose to 33 percent of transactions in February from 31 percent in January; they were 33 percent in February 2011. Investors account for the bulk of cash transactions.

Investors purchased 23 percent of homes in February, unchanged from January; they were 20 percent in February 2011. First-time buyers accounted for 32 percent of transactions in February, down from 33 percent in January and 34 percent in February 2011.

Single-family home sales declined 1.0 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.06 million in February from 4.10 million in January, but are 9.4 percent higher than the 3.71 million-unit level a year ago. The median existing single-family home price was $157,100 in February, which is 0.1 percent above February 2011.

Existing condominium and co-op sales were unchanged at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 530,000 in February and are 3.9 percent above the 510,000-unit pace in February 2011. The median existing condo price was $153,000 in February, up 1.6 percent from a year ago.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast fell 3.3 percent to an annual level of 580,000 in February but are 5.5 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $225,800, down 1.9 percent from February 2011.

Existing-home sales in the Midwest rose 1.0 percent in February to a pace of 1.02 million and are 13.3 percent higher than February 2011. The median price in the Midwest was $120,500, which is 0.5 percent below a year ago.

In the South, existing-home sales increased 0.6 percent to an annual level of 1.77 million in February and are 9.3 percent higher than a year ago. The median price in the South was $138,100, up 1.8 percent from February 2011.

Existing-home sales in the West declined 3.2 percent to an annual pace of 1.22 million in February but are 6.1 percent above February 2011. The median price in the West was $195,300, up 3.1 percent from a year ago.

The National Association of Realtors®, “The Voice for Real Estate,” is America’s largest trade association, representing 1 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries.

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NOTE: For local information, please contact the local association of Realtors® for data from local multiple listing services. Local MLS data is the most accurate source of sales and price information in specific areas, although there may be differences in reporting methodology.

1Existing-home sales, which include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, are based on transaction closings from multiple listing services. Changes in sales trends outside of MLSs are not captured in the monthly series. A rebenchmarking of home sales is done periodically using other sources to assess the overall home sales trend, including sales not reported by MLSs.

Existing-home sales differ 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 account for more than 90 percent of total home sales, are based on a much larger sample – about 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.

2The 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.

3Distressed sales (foreclosures and short sales), contract failures, all-cash transactions, investors and first-time buyers and are from a monthly survey for the Realtors® Confidence Index, posted at Realtor.org.

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).

The Pending Home Sales Index for February will be released March 26 and existing-home sales for March is scheduled for April 19. The Investment and Vacation Home Buyers Survey, covering transactions in 2011, will be released March 29; 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.

REALTOR® is a registered collective membership mark which may be used only by real estate professionals who are members of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® and subscribe to its strict Code of Ethics. Not all real estate agents are REALTORS®. All REALTORS® are members of NAR.