According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), pending home sales eased moderately in January for the second straight month, but remains 20.6 percent above the cyclical low last June 2010.
The Pending Home Sales Index, a forward-looking indicator, declined 2.8 percent to 88.9 based on contracts signed in January from a downwardly revised 91.5 in December. The index is 1.5 percent below the 90.3 level in January 2010 when a tax credit stimulus was in place. The data reflects contracts and not closings, which normally occur with a lag time of one or two months.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, points to the broader trend. "The housing market is healing with sales fluctuating at times, depending on the flow of distressed properties coming on the market," he said.
"While home buyers over the past two years have been exceptionally successful with historically low default rates, there is still an elevated level of shadow inventory of distressed homes from past lending mistakes that need to go through the system," Yun said. "We should not expect the recovery to be in a straight upward path - it will zig-zag at times."
The pace of January existing-home sales, 5.36 million, is slightly higher than NAR's annual forecast for 2011. If contract activity stays on its present course, there should be an 8 percent increase in total existing-home sales this year.
"The broad fundamentals for a housing recovery are developing," Yun said. "Job growth, high housing affordability and rising apartment rent are conducive to bringing more buyers into the market. Some buyers may be looking to real estate as a hedge against potential future inflation."
The PHSI in the Northeast declined 2.4 percent to 73.5 in January and is 3.0 percent below January 2010. In the Midwest the index fell 7.3 percent in January to 78.0 and is 3.2 percent below a year ago. Pending home sales in the South rose 1.4 percent to an index of 97.7 but are 0.4 percent below January 2010. In the West the index fell 5.2 percent to 98.7 and is 0.9 percent below a year ago.