US home sales drop to more than 12-year low in January

January marked the 12th straight monthly decline in sales of existing homes, the longest such stretch since 1999.

A "For Sale" sign is posted outside a single family home in Derry, NH, US
Experts are cautiously optimistic that the housing market slump could be close to reaching the bottom [File: Charles Krupa/AP Photo]

United States existing home sales dropped to a more than 12-year low in January, but the pace of decline slowed, raising cautious optimism that the housing market slump could be close to reaching a bottom.

Existing home sales fell 0.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of four million units last month, the lowest level since October 2010, the National Association of Realtors said on Tuesday. That marked the 12th straight monthly decline in sales, the longest such stretch since 1999.

Sales fell in the Northeast and Midwest, but rose in the South and West. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast home sales rising to a rate of 4.10 million units.

Home resales, which account for a big chunk of US housing sales, plunged 36.9 percent on a year-on-year basis in January.

“Home sales are bottoming out,” said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun.

The housing market has been the biggest casualty of the US Federal Reserve’s aggressive interest rate hiking campaign. Residential investment has contracted for seven straight quarters, the longest such stretch since 2009.

But the worst is probably over. Homebuilders’ sentiment rose to a five-month high in February, though still depressed. It will, however, be a while before the housing market turns around. Government data last week showed single-family homebuilding and permits for future home construction declining in January.

Mortgage rates are rising again, with the 30-year fixed mortgage rate increasing to an average 6.32 percent last week from 6.12 percent the prior week, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac. The second straight weekly increase reflected a spike in bond yields after recent strong data on retail sales and inflation raised fears that the Fed could continue raising interest rates after the middle of the year.

The median existing house price increased 1.3 percent from a year earlier to $359,000 in January. There were 980,000 previously owned homes on the market, up 2.1 percent from December and 15.3 percent from a year ago.

At January’s sales pace, it would take 2.9 months to exhaust the current inventory of existing homes, up from 1.6 months a year ago. A four-to-seven-month supply is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand.

Properties typically remained on the market for 33 days last month, up from 26 days in December. Fifty-four percent of homes sold in January were on the market for less than a month.

First-time buyers accounted for 31 percent of sales, up from 27 percent a year ago. All-cash sales made up 29 percent of transactions compared to 27 percent a year ago.

Source: Reuters