April 22, 2019 / 2:12 PM / 5 months ago

U.S. existing home sales fall more than expected in March

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. home sales fell more than expected in March, pointing to continued weakness in the housing market despite declining mortgage rates and slowing house price gains.

FILE PHOTO: A new apartment building housing construction site is seen in Los Angeles, California, U.S. July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The National Association of Realtors said on Monday existing home sales dropped 4.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.21 million units last month. February’s sales pace was revised down to 5.48 million units from the previously reported 5.51 million units.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast existing home sales would fall 3.8 percent to a rate of 5.30 million units last month. Existing home sales, which make up about 90 percent of U.S. home sales, declined 5.4 percent from a year ago. That was the 13th straight year-on-year decrease in home sales.

Falling mortgage rates, strengthening wage growth and slowing house price inflation have improved affordability, but housing supply remains tight, especially at the lower end of the market as land and labor shortages are making it difficult for builders to ramp up construction in this market segment.

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate has dropped from a peak of about 4.94 percent in November to around 4.12 percent, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac. Wage growth is also strengthening.

A survey last week showed that while builders reported strong demand for new homes in April, they also complained about “affordability concerns stemming from a chronic shortage of construction workers and buildable lots.”

Last month, existing home sales fell in all four regions. There were 1.68 million previously owned homes on the market in March, up from 1.63 million in February. At March’s sales pace, it would take 3.9 months to exhaust the current inventory, up from 3.6 months in February.

A six-to-seven-month supply is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand. The median existing house price increased 3.8 percent from a year ago to $259,400 in March.

The Commerce Department reported last Friday that housing starts dropped to a rate of 1.139 million units in March, the lowest level since May 2017.

That was the second straight monthly drop in homebuilding and pushed starts substantially below the 1.5 million to 1.6 million units per month range that realtors estimate is needed to alleviate the shortage.

Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao

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