May 23, 2008 / 2:06 PM / 10 years ago

Home sales slip, stock of unsold homes rises

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sales of previously owned U.S. homes slipped last month and the backlog of unsold properties hit a record high, according to data on Friday that suggested the market’s downturn still has a long way to run.

A sign advertises an open house for sale in Alexandria, Virginia in this April 6, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Home resales fell 1 percent in April to a 4.89 million-unit annual rate, the National Association of Realtors said.

The sales pace was a bit better than expected on Wall Street, but the stock of unsold homes surged 10.5 percent to 4.55 million units, leading economists to warn of further housing market woes ahead.

At April’s sales pace, the supply of homes was 11.2 months’ worth, the highest since the trade group began tracking single-family and condo properties together in 1999. For single units, the supply was 10.7 months’ worth, the most in 23 years.

“The increase in unsold inventory suggests that the housing downturn will continue on through this year and well into next,” said Moody’s Chief Economist Mark Zandi.

Stocks initially got a slight lift from the data, but later turned lower as the market digested the news and warily eyed a resumption in the steep run-up in oil prices. The blue chip Dow Jones industrial average .DJI closed down nearly 146 points, or 1.1 percent.

Prices of U.S. government bonds rose as investors shifted out of stocks, while the dollar fell and oil climbed above $131 a barrel.

The report showed the median home price in April was down 8 percent from a year ago, at $202,300. It was the second-largest price decline on record, following the biggest drop in February.

“The big surprise was the inventory of unsold homes rising to a record level,’ said Rudy Narvas, a senior analyst at 4Cast Ltd. in New York. “This would suggest to us that further price declines are going to be necessary for the inventory to clear.”

A report on Thursday showed home price declines accelerated in the first quarter. The federal Office of Housing Enterprise Oversight said its price index fell 1.7 percent in the first quarter, the steepest drop in the index’s 17-year history.

Other price measures have shown even steeper drops. The Standard & Poor’s/Case Shiller home price index of 20 metropolitan areas showed a drop of 12.7 percent in the 12 months through February, with prices down 15.8 percent from their June 2006 peak. The March index will be released on Tuesday.

“With prices collapsing, the incentive not to buy a home is increasing by the week, and with inventory showing no sign of improvement, prices will keep falling,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, New York.

Moody’s Zandi said about one-fourth of the sales likely were due to foreclosure, which he said was another negative sign.

NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said that foreclosed homes, which sell at substantially lower prices, were increasingly showing up in the existing home sales data.

“Several markets are seeing a significant rise in home sales,” Yun said. “These markets are also the markets that have witnessed a substantial decline in prices.”

Sales declined in the Northeast, Midwest and South but rose in the West, by 6.4 percent. But prices in the region were off 16.7 percent from a year ago, the sharpest regional price decline.

“Anecdotal reports and local data indicate that prices have taken a beating in California, Las Vegas and Phoenix, and foreclosures and sales of foreclosed properties seem to be much heavier in California than anywhere else,” economist Stephen Stanley of RBS Greenwich Capital wrote in a research note.

“This would suggest that perhaps the intense downdraft in prices in troubled markets, some of which is being dictated by foreclosure activity, is beginning to draw in buyers,” he said.

The trade association said last month’s existing home sales pace was 17.5 percent below the rate of April 2007, with single-family home sales off 16.1 percent and sales of multiple family units down 27.9 percent.

Reporting by Joanne Morrison; Editing by Dan Grebler

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