(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Strong gains in existing-home sales were the predominant pattern in most states during the fourth quarter, with many more metro areas seeing prices rise from a year earlier, according to the latest survey by the National Association of Realtors.
Sales increased from the third quarter in 48 states and the District of Columbia; 32 states saw double-digit gains. Year-over-year sales were higher in 49 states and D.C.; all but three states had double-digit annual increases.
Total state existing-home sales, including single-family and condo, jumped 13.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.03 million in the fourth quarter from 5.29 million in the third quarter, and are 27.2 percent above the 4.74 million-unit level in the fourth quarter of 2008. Distressed property accounted for 32 percent of fourth quarter transactions, down from 37 percent a year earlier.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said the first-time home buyer tax credit was the dominant factor. "The surge in home sales was driven by buyers responding strongly to the tax credit combined with record low mortgage interest rates," he said. "With inventory levels trending down over the past 18 months, we expect broadly balanced housing market conditions in much of the country by late spring with more areas showing higher prices."
According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate on a 30-year conventional fixed-rate mortgage fell to a record low 4.92 percent in the fourth quarter from 5.16 percent in the third quarter; it was 5.86 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008.
In the fourth quarter, 67 out of 151 metropolitan statistical areas reported higher median existing single-family home prices in comparison with the fourth quarter of 2008, including 16 with double-digit increases; one was unchanged and 84 metros had price declines. In the third quarter only 30 MSAs showed annual price increases and 123 areas were down.
The national median existing single-family price was $172,900, which is 4.1 percent below the fourth quarter of 2008; the median is where half sold for more and half sold for less. "This is the smallest price decline in over two years, with the most recent monthly data showing a broad stabilization in home prices," Yun said.
"Because buyers are taking on long-term fixed rate mortgages, avoiding adjustable-rate products, and trying to stay well within their budgets, the price recovery process appears durable," Yun said.
Vicki Cox Golder
NAR President Vicki Cox Golder, owner of Vicki L. Cox & Associates in Tucson, Ariz., said near-term market conditions will remain favorable. "Mortgage interest rates are expected to trend up later this year, but right now we have very good conditions with steadying home prices and favorable inventory in most areas, especially in the higher price ranges," she said.
"The biggest issue is for repeat buyers, who will have to accelerate their buying plans if they want the expanded tax credit. Since you must have a contract in place by the end of April, the best advice is to consult a Realtor now about qualification criteria and options in your area," Golder said.
Repeat buyers do not have to sell their existing home, but all buyers must occupy the property they purchase as a primary residence to qualify for the tax credit. Buyers who have a contract in place by April 30, 2010, have until June 30, 2010, to finalize the transaction to get a credit of up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and $6,500 for repeat buyers.
In the condo sector, metro area condominium and cooperative prices - covering changes in 54 metro areas - showed the national median existing-condo price was $177,300 in the fourth quarter, down 4.8 percent from the fourth quarter of 2008. Eleven metros showed increases in the median condo price from a year earlier and 43 areas had declines; in the third quarter only four metros experienced annual price gains.
Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 11.1 percent in the fourth quarter to a pace of 1.03 million and are 33.6 percent higher than a year ago. The median existing single-family home price in the Northeast declined 5.6 percent to $234,900 in the fourth quarter from the same quarter in 2008, but with widely varying conditions.
"In the Northeast, markets with lower median prices that have avoided wide swings, such as Buffalo, are generally showing consistent price gains," Yun said. "Even so, some of the higher cost areas are showing signs of stabilization, such as Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y., and Boston."
In the Midwest, existing-home sales jumped 14.5 percent in the fourth quarter to a pace of 1.38 million and are 29.9 percent above a year ago. The median existing single-family home price in the Midwest rose 1.1 percent to $141,100 in the fourth quarter from the same period in 2008, with the region accounting for the majority of metro areas experiencing double-digit gains.
Yun said markets with high unemployment rates in Ohio and Michigan experienced large price swings. "Big price gains in many Midwestern areas are due to a more normal range of home sales in contrast with predominately foreclosed sales a year ago," he said.
In the South, existing-home sales rose 13.8 percent in the fourth quarter to an annual rate of 2.23 million and are 28.2 percent higher than the fourth quarter of 2008. The median existing single-family home price in the South was $153,000 in the fourth quarter, down 2.4 percent from a year earlier.
"Affordable markets in the South that have relatively better local economies are seeing healthy price gains, such as Houston, Oklahoma City and Shreveport, La.," Yun said.
Existing-home sales in the West jumped 16.2 percent in the fourth quarter to an annual rate of 1.38 million and are 18.2 percent above a year ago. The median existing single-family home price in the West was $227,200 in the fourth quarter, which is 8.9 percent below the fourth quarter of 2008, but with many areas showing notable gains.
"Markets in the West such as San Francisco, San Jose and Denver are showing double-digit price increases, and other markets like San Diego and Anaheim have begun to firm up," Yun said.
The National Association of Realtors, "The Voice for Real Estate," is America's largest trade association, representing 1.2 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries.
For more real estate industry news and trends from the National Association of Realtors, visit www.Realtor.org.