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US new home sales hit 1½-year high in March on lower mortgages, prices

The third straight monthly increase could signal some recovery in the housing market

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About 62 per cent of the houses sold in March were either under construction or yet to be built. "Lower mortgage rates have started to entice buyers this spring and foreshadows a potential strengthening of existing home sales in the months to come," says Danielle Hale, chief economist at realtor.com.

Washington

SALES of new US single-family homes rose to a near 1½-year high in March, boosted by lower mortgage rates and house prices.

The third straight monthly increase reported by the Commerce Department on Tuesday suggested some recovery was under way in the housing market, which hit a soft patch last year against the backdrop of higher borrowing costs and more expensive homes.

"In this housing market, affordability for buyers is key," said Danielle Hale, chief economist at realtor.com.

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"This trend supports the fact that lower mortgage rates have started to entice buyers this spring and foreshadows a potential strengthening of existing home sales in the months to come."

New home sales increased 4.5 per cent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 692,000 units last month, the highest level since November 2017. February's sales pace was revised down to 662,000 units from the previously reported 667,000 units.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast new home sales, which account for 11.7 per cent of housing market sales, decreasing 2.5 per cent to a pace of 650,000 units in March.

New home sales are drawn from permits and tend to be volatile on a month-to-month basis. They increased 3 per cent from a year ago.

The median new house price dropped 9.7 per cent to US$302,700 in March from a year ago, the lowest level since February 2017. The drop was because of an increase in the share of homes sold in the US$200,000 to US$300,000 price range.

Away from the new housing market, overall house price inflation is slowing. A separate report on Tuesday showed the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) house price index rose a seasonally adjusted 4.9 per cent in February from a year ago.

That was the smallest gain since early 2015 and followed a 5.6 per cent increase in January.

The FHFA's index is calculated by using purchase prices of houses financed with mortgages sold to or guaranteed by mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The moderation in house prices was set in motion by last year's slackening in demand, which was triggered by higher mortgage rates. The 30-year fixed mortgage rate has dropped by about 80 basis points since November, according to data from Freddie Mac. That followed a recent decision by the Federal Reserve to suspend its three-year monetary policy tightening campaign.

Wage growth has picked up, also making home purchasing more affordable for some working Americans.

The PHLX housing index was trading higher, also tracking a higher US stock market. The dollar firmed against a basket of currencies. Prices for US Treasuries rose.

New home sales have not been as severely impacted by the supply problems that have plagued the market for previously owned homes. A report on Monday showed home resales tumbled in March, weighed down by a persistent shortage of lower-priced houses.

Despite the strengthening housing market fundamentals, land and labour shortages are constraining builders' ability to break more ground on lower-priced housing projects. Expectations for slower economic growth this year are also seen curbing demand.

Economists believe housing probably remained a drag on gross domestic product in the first quarter. Investment in homebuilding contracted 0.3 per cent in 2018, the biggest drop since 2010.

In March, new home sales in the South, which accounts for the bulk of transactions, increased 3.6 per cent to their best level since July 2007.

There were 344,000 new homes on the market last month, down 0.3 per cent from February. At March's sales pace, it would take six months to clear the supply of houses on the market, down from 6.3 months in February.

About 62 per cent of the houses sold last month were either under construction or yet to be built. REUTERS