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US new home sales drop; but record low mortgage rates still underpinning demand

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Confidence among homebuilders hit a record high in October, while sales of previously owned homes jumped to their highest level in more than 14 years in September.

Washington

SALES of new US single-family homes unexpectedly fell in September after four straight monthly increases, but the housing market remains supported by record low mortgage rates and demand for more space as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on.

The decrease in sales reported by the US Commerce Department on Monday followed data last week showing single-family homebuilding and permits racing to levels last seen in 2007 in September.

Confidence among homebuilders hit a record high in October, while sales of previously owned homes jumped to their highest level in more than 14 years in September.

"While there could be some ups and downs along the way, we still look for strength in the housing market as low mortgage rates boost activity and earlier pent-up demand for housing is released," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

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New home sales fell 3.5 per cent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 959,000 units last month. August's sales pace was revised down to 994,000 units from the previously reported 1.011 million units.

New home sales surged 32.1 per cent year on year. New home sales are counted at the signing of a contract, making them a leading housing market indicator.

September's monthly decline could, however, be flagging a slowdown in housing market momentum heading into the fourth quarter. Applications for loans to purchase a home have dropped for four straight weeks.

While homebuilder confidence is at historic highs, shortages of land, labour, lumber and other key building materials are lengthening construction times.

Although the pandemic has bruised the economy, it has boosted the housing market, as Americans flee from city centres to the suburbs and low-density areas, in search of more space for home offices and schooling.

Staggering unemployment, which has left 23.2 million people on jobless benefits, has disproportionately affected low-wage workers.

Home sales have been concentrated in the single-family segment and in the higher price ranges. Both first-time and second-home buyers have been active in the market, with bidding wars reported in some parts of the country.

Last month's decline in new home sales did not change expectations that the housing market likely contributed to a sharp rebound in economic activity in the third quarter.

Growth estimates for the July-September quarter are as high as a 35.3 per cent annualised rate, which would recoup roughly two-thirds of the output lost because of the pandemic.

The economy contracted at a 31.4 per cent pace in the second quarter, the deepest decline since the government started keeping records in 1947.

Third-quarter gross domestic product growth was juiced up by government money, which has since run out. That, together with the resurgence in coronavirus infections, has led to projections of a steep slowdown in activity in the fourth quarter.

"The housing sector should remain supportive of growth at least for the next couple of quarters as strong demand drives new construction," said Andrew Hollenhorst, an economist at Citigroup in New York.

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate is at an average of 2.8 per cent, showed data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac.

In September, new home sales tumbled 28.9 per cent in the Northeast. They fell 4.7 per cent in the South, which accounts for the bulk of transactions, and dropped 4.1 per cent in the Midwest. But sales increased 3.8 per cent in the West.

The median new house price increased 3.5 per cent to US$326,800 in September from a year ago. New home sales last month were concentrated in the US$200,000 to US$399,000 price range.

There were 284,000 new homes on the market last month, up from 282,000 in August.

At September's sales pace, it would take 3.6 months to clear the supply of houses on the market, up from three to four months in August. Just over two-thirds of the homes sold last month were either under construction or yet to be built. REUTERS

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