Existing-home sales rose unexpectedly while inventory declined, led by a surge of sales in the West, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Existing-home sales – including single-family, town homes, condominiums and co-ops – jumped 6.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.74 million units in December. The number compares to a downwardly revised pace of 4.45 million units in November, but 3.5 percent below the 4.91 million-unit pace in December 2007.

For all of 2008, there were about 4.9 million existing-home sales — 13.1 percent below the 5.65 million transactions recorded in 2007. This is the lowest volume since 1997 when there were 4,371,000 sales.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said home prices continue to fall significantly.

“It appears some buyers are taking advantage of much lower home prices,” he said. “The higher monthly sales gain and falling inventory are steps in the right direction, but the market is still far from normal balanced conditions. Buyers will continue to have an edge over sellers for the foreseeable future.”

Total housing inventory at the end of December fell 11.7 percent to 3.68 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 9.3-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 11.2-month supply in November.

Yun said the market is under performing and hurting the broader economy.

“We’ve added 25 million people to our population over the past decade and housing affordability conditions are the best we’ve seen since 1973, but household formation is much lower than expected,” he said. “Consequently, there is a pent-up demand which could be unleashed with the right stimulus, including a non-repayable home buyer tax credit. The Obama administration and Congress need to move fast to stimulate a spring sales upturn which will help to stabilize home prices and set the foundation for a sustainable economic recovery.”

Housing Stats

National median existing-home price: (for all housing types) was $175,400 in December, which is 15.3 percent below December 2007 when the median was $207,000. There remains a significant downward distortion in the current median from a large number of distress sales at discounted prices, currently 45 percent of transactions; the median is where half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less. For all of 2008, the median price was $198,600, down 9.3 percent from $219,000 in 2007.

Single-family home sales: rose 7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.26 million in December from a level of 3.98 million in November, but are 1.4 percent below a 4.32 million-unit pace in December 2007. For all of 2008, single-family sales fell 11.9 percent to 4,349,000.

Median existing single-family home price: dropped to $174,700 in December, down 14.8 percent from a year ago. For all of 2008, the single-family median was $197,100, which is 9.5 percent below 2007.

Existing condominium and co-op sales: increased 2.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 480,000 units in December from 470,000 in November, but are 18.4 percent below the 588,000-unit level a year ago. For all of 2008, condo sales dropped 21.0 percent to 563,000 units.

Median existing condo price: slipped to $181,400 in December, down 18.3 percent from December 2007. For all of 2008, the median condo price was $210,000, which is 7.2 percent below 2007.

Existing-Home Sales By Region

  • Northeast: slipped 1.4 percent to an annual pace of 720,000 in December, and are 14.3 percent below December 2007. The median price in the Northeast was $235,000, which is 7.8 percent lower than a year ago.
  • Midwest: increased 4.0 percent in December to a level of 1.04 million but are 10.3 percent below a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $140,800, down 11.4 percent from December 2007.
  • South: rose 7.4 percent to an annual pace of 1.74 million in December, but are 11.2 percent lower than December 2007. The median price in the South was $158,600, which is down 8 percent from a year ago.
  • West: jumped 13.6 percent to an annual rate of 1.25 million in December and are 31.6 percent higher than a year ago. The median price in the West was $213,100, down 31.5 percent from December 2007.

A Good Time to Buy

NAR President Charles McMillan said it’s an excellent time for first-time home buyers with good jobs.

“The typical buyer plans to stay in their home for 10 years, which is the correct approach in today’s market,” he said. “With historically low mortgage interest rates, flexible sellers, a large inventory, and homes that are selling for less than replacement construction costs in much of the country, buyers who’ve been on the fence should take a closer look at today’s market.”

McMillan added that first-time buyers may want to consider an FHA loan, which offers downpayments of 3.5 percent on a safe 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage fell to 5.29 percent in December from 6.09 percent in November; the rate was 6.10 percent in December 2007. Last week, Freddie Mac reported the 30-year rate was 5.12 percent.

Source: NAR