Sales of existing homes increase to highest since 2009


Source: Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Previously owned homes sold in May at the fastest pace since November 2009, driven by first-time buyers and indicating budding momentum in the residential real estate market.

Closings on existing properties, which usually occur a month or two after a contract is signed, rose 5.1 percent to a 5.35 million annualized rate, the National Association of Realtors reported Monday in Washington. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey called for a 5.26 million pace. The share of first-time buyers matched the highest level since September 2012.

Employment gains, rising incomes and still-cheap borrowing costs are combining to propel sales after a period of uneven demand from late 2014 through early this year. The prospect of higher interest rates as the Federal Reserve considers tighter monetary policy may be encouraging more Americans to take the homeownership plunge.

"Incomes are doing better and more people are working," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities in Stamford, Connecticut. Stanley correctly forecast May sales. "I would imagine we'll continue to see better demand from first-time buyers."

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey of 71 economists ranged from 5.05 million to 5.4 million. April's pace was revised to 5.09 million from an originally reported 5.04 million.

Excluding November 2009, when demand was bolstered by the expiration of a homebuyer tax credit, sales last month were the strongest in more than eight years.

Compared with a year earlier, purchases increased 5.1 percent in May before adjusting for seasonal variations.

First-time buyers accounted for 32 percent of all purchases in May, up from 27 percent a year earlier.

"The return of first-time buyers in May is an encouraging sign," Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said in a statement.

The median price of an existing home rose 7.9 percent from May 2014 to $228,700. The appreciation was led by a 10.2 percent year-to-year advance in the West and a 9.4 percent gain in the Midwest.

Prices have been bolstered by a dearth of supply on the market. While the number of previously owned homes for sale rose 1.8 percent in May to 2.3 million, at the current sales pace, it would take 5.1 months to sell those houses. That's down from 5.2 months at the end of the prior month.

"With inventories still tight, prices are moving up," Yun said at a press conference as the figures were released. "We need more supply."

Purchases climbed in all four regions, led by an 11.3 percent gain in the Northeast, the Realtors' data show.

Sales of existing single-family homes increased 5.6 percent to an annual rate of 4.73 million. Purchases of multifamily properties — including condominiums and townhouses — rose 1.6 percent to a 620,000 pace.

Of all purchases, cash transactions accounted for about 24 percent, the report showed.

"Certainly an improving economy is helping," Yun said. Realtor confidence and buyer traffic are "solidly up."

Distressed sales, comprised of foreclosures and short sales, in which the lender agrees to a transaction for less than the balance of the mortgage, accounted for 10 percent of the total for a third month.

The housing industry has shown gradual gains in the second quarter after the world's largest economy slumped in the first three months of the year.

While housing starts declined 11.1 percent in May to a 1.04 million annualized rate, that followed a revised 1.17 million pace in April to cap the best back-to-back readings since late 2007, Commerce Department figures showed last week. Permits for future projects rose to the highest level in almost eight years.

Homebuilders are feeling better about the outlook. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment gauge advanced in June to the highest level since September.

"Current demand exceeds supply in many markets, leading to price appreciation, and the large amount of pent-up demand is gradually translating into additional buyers," Larry Seay, chief financial officer of Meritage Homes Corp. in Scottsdale, Arizona, said at a June 3 conference hosted by Deutsche Bank.

Relatively low borrowing costs are still supporting would- be buyers who can qualify for credit. The average rate for a 30- year fixed mortgage reached 4.04 percent in the week ended June 11, according to data from McLean, Virginia-based Freddie Mac. While that was the highest rate this year, it's below the average 4.17 percent for all of 2014.

"Housing overall, given the still-low level of mortgage rates, remains quite affordable," Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said in a June 17 press conference after the policy makers' two-day meeting in Washington. At the same time, "anyone who doesn't have a pristine credit rating finds it very difficult at this point to qualify for a mortgage."

The central bankers decided at their June meeting to keep the benchmark interest rate near zero, where it's been since 2008. Most economists surveyed by Bloomberg project the Fed will announce its first rate increase in nine years in September.

Existing home sales, which are tallied only when purchase contracts close. A timelier barometer is new-home purchases, because they are tabulated earlier in the process, when deals are signed.

Economists project those sales rose to a 524,000 pace in May after 517,000 the prior month, according to the Bloomberg survey median ahead of Tuesday's report from the Commerce Department.