The National Association of Realtors data on the sale of existing homes in March came in just where analysts had projected ' down 2 percent from a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.03 million units in February to 4.93 million. This is 19.3 percent below the 6.11 units that were sold in March 2007.
Home sales had bumped up unexpectedly in February by 2.9 percent, leading the NAR to speculate that the housing market was "leveling off." Tuesday's figures, however, are a clear indication that the credit crunch, excess inventories of unsold houses, and the economy in general are continuing to sink sales.
Condo sales were up in March by 3.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 580,000 units, but that increase was offset by single family sales which dropped 2.7 percent to 4.35 million in March from 4.47 million in February. Sales in March one year ago were 18.4 percent higher at 5.33 million.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said the market is performing unevenly. "Though mortgage rates
are at historically low levels, some borrowers are facing restrictive lending practices in declining markets," he said. "At the same time, many buyers continue to bide their time with a large number of homes to choose from, while other potential buyers remain on the sidelines."
Housing prices were also down. The median price of all existing home types was $200,700 in March. This is 7.7 percent lower than one year ago when the median was $217,400. The median existing single-family home price was $198,200 in March, down 8.3 percent from a year ago and condos sold for a median price of $219,000 in March, 2.8 percent lower than one year earlier.
Inventories of homes for sale continue to be a major problem. The total inventory of available housing rose 1 percent in March to 4.06 million units. This represents a 9.9 month supply at the current absorption rate. In February there was a 9.6 month supply.
Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 2.2 percent to an annual pace of 910,000 in March, but are 18.8 percent below March 2007. The median price in the Northeast was $284,300, up 4.6 percent from a year ago.
Existing-home sales in the West rose 2.2 percent in March to a level of 940,000 but are 22.3 percent below a year ago. The median price in the West was $285,100, which is 14.7 percent lower than March 2007.
In the South, existing-home sales fell 3.5 percent to an annual rate of 1.92 million in March and are 20.0 percent below March 2007. The median price in the South was $167,200, down 7.1 percent from a year ago.
Existing-home sales in the Midwest dropped 6.5 percent to an annual rate of 1.16 million in March, and are 15.9 percent below a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $152,600, down 5.3 percent from March 2007.
NAR President Richard F. Gaylord blamed the mortgage industry for some of the decline, saying there are problems with the implementation of mortgage guidelines. "It appears there is some over-reaction on the part of some lenders now in requiring higher downpayment percentages than may be necessary. On the other hand, buyers in many parts of the country are able to take advantage of more lenient policies for FHA loans. However, because lenders don't have enough underwriting experience with FHA loans in high-cost areas, there are localized bottlenecks in loan processing."
Yun cautioned the Federal Reserve about further rate cuts. "Mortgage interest rates," he said, "which do not move directly with Fed funds rates, may rise measurably and hurt the housing recovery if inflation gets out of hand. Monetary stimulus is plentiful ' what is needed more at this point is a home buyer tax credit to get buyers off the sidelines and prevent the market from overshooting on the downside."