Monday, December 31, 2007

Existing-Home Sales Edged Up In November, but Still Weak

By JEFF BATER
December 31, 2007 10:21 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Existing-home sales managed a small climb during November, the first increase in nine months, but that didn't change the overall bleak picture for the ailing housing industry.

Home resales rose to a 5.00 million annual rate, a 0.4% increase from October's revised 4.98 million annual pace, the National Association of Realtors said Monday. October's rate was originally estimated at 4.97 million.

The median price of a previously owned home was $210,200 in November, down 3.3% from $217,300 in November 2006. The median price in October this year was $206,900.

The NAR said disruptions in mortgage availability and pricing peaked in August, which caused sales to slow in subsequent months. The November resales increase was the first since February 2007; the sales level of 5.00 million was in line with Wall Street expectations.

"Near term, existing-home sales should continue to hover in a narrow range, just as they have since September, and that's good news because it'll be a further sign that the housing market is stabilizing," NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said.

The housing slump has been a drag on the economy for nearly two years. In the third quarter, the economy roared despite the burden. But in the fourth quarter, which ends with the year, the economy is seen much weaker, restrained by the dead weight of housing. New-home sales retreated to a 12-year low in November, the government reported last week; that is, sales of single-family homes decreased by 9.0% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 647,000, the lowest since 621,000 in April 1995.

Get alerts for breaking news -- such as Fed moves, major world events and big mergers -- delivered straight to your desktop. Alerts will appear in a small window on your screen, much like an instant-messaging window. See a sample and get more information.Also receding are prices for new homes. Falling prices can chill consumer spending, which makes up 70% of U.S. economic activity as measured by GDP. When consumers watch the value of their homes shrink, they tend to feel less wealthy, a mood that can act as a damper on spending plans and, in turn, slow economic growth.

But on a bright note, data from Freddie Mac show the average 30-year mortgage rate was 6.21% in November, down from 6.38% in October.

"Mortgage interest rates are near historic lows and the most current data shows decelerating price declines, along with a modest reduction in the number of homes on the market," Mr. Yun said.

Inventories of homes fell 3.6% at the end of November to 4.27 million available for sale, which represented a 10.3-month supply at the current sales pace. There was a 10.7-month supply at the end of October, revised from a previously estimated 10.8 months.

Regionally, existing-home sales were mixed in November. Sales rose 10.3% in the West and were unchanged in the Midwest. Demand fell 2% in the South and 3.3% in the Northeast.

Write to Jeff Bater at jeff.bater@dowjones.com

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