December 31, 2007 / 3:05 PM / 11 years ago

Existing home sales edge up from record low

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The pace of existing U.S. home sales edged up in November from a record low, according to a report on Monday that offered some tentative signs of stabilization in the still-ailing housing market.

Construction work continues on new homes in Carlsbad, California September 18, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Sales of previously owned homes rose 0.4 percent to a 5 million-unit annual rate, the first increase in nine months, the National Association of Realtors said.

Economists and investors breathed a small sigh of relief that the glut of unsold homes was smaller than a month earlier, dipping to 10.3 months’ supply at November’s sales pace from 10.7 in October, as falling prices spurred stronger demand.

Wall Street economists had expected home resales to hold steady at October’s previously reported 4.97 million-unit pace. October sales were revised up to a 4.98 million unit rate, still the lowest on records dating to 1999.

The data initially helped stocks trim losses, while weighing on prices for U.S. government bonds. However, the moves were short-live and major stock indexes closed down, with the blue chip Dow Jones industrial index falling 101 points to 13,264.

“The second consecutive month of steady sales seemingly hints at a possible bottom in housing demand,” said Haseeb Ahmed, an economist with JPMorgan in New York. However, Ahmed said the stability was “quite possibly temporary.”

While the inventory of unsold homes moved down, it remained elevated at 4.27 million homes as the ongoing turmoil in the credit markets thinned the pool of potential buyers, suggesting it may be some time before the market regains solid footing.

“Despite the good news in this report, we could just be in the eye of the storm, as a significant number of mortgages reset (to higher interest rates) early in 2008, (which) will likely increase delinquencies and foreclosures, driving prices lower and pushing buyers away,” said Benjamin Reitzes, an economist with BMO Capital Markets.

“This could get even worse before it gets better.”

REALTORS LOOK TO FED

Economists and investors are eager for signs the housing market is stabilizing after a tumultuous year that saw credit markets freeze up in the wake of rising mortgage defaults.

Over the past year, sales of existing homes have plummeted 20 percent.

The Realtors’ urged the U.S. Federal Reserve to slash interest rates by as much as three-quarters of a percentage point in January as a way to embolden home buyers. Most economists expect a quarter-point cut at the central bank’s meeting on January 29-30.

“The Federal Reserve could greatly help the housing market by making a one-time, large interest rate cut” instead of a series of smaller reductions, said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the trade group. “Knowing the Fed may cut rates, people are waiting and waiting to enter the market.”

The Fed already has lowered its key interest rate target three times since mid-September by a cumulative 1 percentage point in an effort to insulate the broader economy from the housing woes.

The national median existing home price for November fell 3.3 percent from a year earlier to $210,200. That was the fifth-largest decline on record. October’s was the biggest.

A separate report on Friday showed that sales of new homes slumped 9 percent in November to the lowest rate in more than 12 years. Taken together, the reports suggested that it may be some time before the housing market rebounds.

“The headwinds of slowing employment growth, high inventories and tighter credit availability will prevent any recovery in existing home sales from occurring until the end of 2008,” said Gary Bigg, an economist with Bank of America in New York.

Editing by Neil Stempleman

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