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US existing home sales fall to slowest pace in September since 2015

Higher prices and mortgage costs are keeping potential buyers on the sidelines amid rising interest rates

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The average mortgage rate for a 30-year fixed term has advanced nearly one percentage point this year, compared to a decline in 2017, according to Bankrate.com data. This is likely to weigh on home sales.

Washington

SALES of previously owned US homes eased in September to the weakest pace in almost three years, a sign rising prices and mortgage costs are keeping potential buyers on the sidelines, National Association of Realtors (NAR) data showed last Friday.

The sixth-straight monthly drop in sales, the longest streak since 2015, underscores what's now a challenging time in the real estate market for buyers. The average mortgage rate for a 30-year fixed term has advanced nearly one percentage point this year, compared to a decline in 2017, according to Bankrate.com data.

The drag from higher mortgage rates is "likely to weigh on the existing home sales data in upcoming reports over the next several months", Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co, said in a note.

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Rising prices are also keeping homes unaffordable, particularly for first-time buyers. Those price gains are fuelled by demand - homes stayed on the market for only 32 days on average, compared with 34 days a year earlier. There's also a lack of supply, with inventories ticking up yet remaining tight.

"There is without a doubt a clear shift in the market as evidenced by lower sales and higher inventory," Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist, said at a briefing accompanying the release of the report. The shift reflects a cooling in the market from recent highs and Americans digesting the higher cost of a mortgage, he said, adding that the decline in closings was the biggest since early 2016.

At the same time, tax cuts and a tight job market - keeping people steadily employed and helping lift wages - should continue buoying some buyers. Mr Yun said that the positive effects have been cancelled out by the rising burden of mortgage rates.

Hurricanes may have impacted sales data by curbing home-buying plans and transactions, though the latest storm impacted a small share of deals, NAR said. Florence's landfall in North Carolina in mid-September came about a year after Irma battered Florida.

The data is also in line with government numbers on Wednesday that showed new-home construction fell in September as Florence disrupted activity in the South. Future building also showed signs of weakness with multi-family permits dropping to the lowest level in two years.

"New housing construction faces headwinds in the way of rising labour and input costs, which have also put upward pressure on home prices," Shernette McLeod, an economist at TD Economics, wrote in a note.

Purchases fell in three of four regions, led by a 5.4 per cent slump in the South; Mid-west sales were unchanged from the prior month

The decline in sales cut across price categories, with the least expensive homes, those under US$100,000, slumping 18.3 per cent from a year earlier, while those at more than US$1 million cooled by 1.6 per cent, the most in two years

Sales of single-family homes and condominium and co-op units both dropped 3.4 per cent from the prior month.

At the current pace, it would take 4.4 months to sell the homes on the market, compared with 4.3 months in August; Realtors group considers less than five months' supply consistent with a tight market.

Existing home sales account for about 90 per cent of the market and are calculated when a contract closes. The remainder of the market is made up by new home sales, which are considered a timelier indicator and are tabulated when contracts get signed. BLOOMBERG