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US existing home sales hit six-month low, inventories low

Monday, December 22, 2014 - 23:54

[WASHINGTON] US home resales tumbled to a six-month low in November after two straight months of strong increases, underscoring the uneven nature of the housing market recovery.

The National Association of Realtors said on Monday existing home sales dropped 6.1 per cent to an annual rate of 4.93 million units, the lowest level since May.

November's steep decline probably does not signal the start of a weakening trend and in part reflected stubbornly low inventories, which touched an eight-month low, giving buyers limited options. Sales were up 2.1 per cent from a year ago.

"The report suggests that the housing market remains on a somewhat rocky footing as data remains quite choppy," said Gennadiy Goldberg, an economist at TD Securities in New York.

Housing has struggled to shift into higher gear after stagnating in the second half of 2013 in the wake of a jump in mortgage rates, which have since pulled back from their peaks.

It has lagged an acceleration in economic activity as tepid wage growth, a shortage of properties available for sale and higher home prices sidelined first-time buyers.

But there optimism that a broadening of job gains will translate into stronger wage growth in 2015 and stimulate demand for housing. Household formation, a key ingredient for a healthy housing market, is running at about 500,000 a year, well below the more than one million that is considered ideal.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected sales to fall only to a 5.20-million unit pace.

The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies after the report. US stocks held their gains, though the housing index was trading down 0.3 per cent. Prices for US Treasury debt were little moved.

First-time buyers are wading back into the market, accounting for 31 per cent of transactions last month. That was the biggest share since October 2012 and was up from 29 per cent in October. Economists and real estate agents say a share of 40 per cent to 45 per cent is required for a strong housing recovery.

Investors, who had supported the market, continued to withdraw in November. They accounted for 15 per cent of transactions last month, down from 19 per cent in November 2013.

The inventory of unsold homes on the market fell 6.7 per cent from a year ago to 2.09 million.

At November's sales pace, it would take 5.1 months to clear houses from the market, unchanged from October. A six months'supply is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand.

With supply declining, house price gains remained elevated, though the pace of increases is slowing. The median home price increased 5.0 per cent in November from a year ago.

REUTERS