Existing-home sales fell in January to the lowest level in a year-and-a-half, but ongoing inventory shortages continue to lift prices in much of the U.S., according to the National Association of REALTORS®.
Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, dropped 5.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.62 million in January from 4.87 million in December, and are also 5.1 percent below the 4.87 million-unit pace in January 2013. Last month’s level of activity was the slowest since July 2012, when it stood at 4.59 million.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says unusual weather is playing a role. “Disruptive and prolonged winter weather patterns across the country are impacting a wide range of economic activity, and housing is no exception,” he says. “Some housing activity will be delayed until spring. At the same time, we can’t ignore the ongoing headwinds of tight credit, limited inventory, higher prices and higher mortgage interest rates. These issues will hinder home sales activity until the positive factors of job growth and new supply from higher housing starts begin to make an impact.”
The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $188,900, up 10.7 percent from January 2013. Distressed homes – foreclosures and short sales – accounted for 15 percent of January sales, compared with 14 percent in December and 24 percent in January 2013.
Eleven percent of January sales were foreclosures, and 4 percent were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 16 percent below market value in January, while short sales were discounted 13 percent.
Total housing inventory at the end of January rose 2.2 percent to 1.90 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 4.9-month supply at the current sales pace, up from 4.6 months in December. Unsold inventory is 7.3 percent above a year ago, when there was a 4.4-month supply. A supply of 6.0 to 6.5 months represents a rough balance between buyers and sellers.
According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage slipped to 4.43 percent in January from 4.46 percent in December; the rate was 3.41 percent in January 2013.
NAR President Steve Brown says that in addition to disruptive weather, higher flood insurance rates are impacting the market in areas designated as flood zones, which account for roughly 8 to 9 percent of sales. “Thirty percent of transactions in flood zones were cancelled or delayed in January as a result of sharply higher flood insurance rates,” he says. “Since going into effect on October 1, 2013, about 40,000 home sales were either delayed or canceled because of increases and confusion over significantly higher flood insurance rates. The volume could accelerate as the market picks up this spring.”
Congress is considering legislation to halt new flood insurance rates so the Federal Emergency Management Agency can complete an affordability study and determine the full impact of the law.
The median time on market for all homes was 67 days in January, down from 72 days in December and 71 days on market in December 2013. Short sales were on the market for a median of 150 days in January, while foreclosures typically sold in 58 days and non-distressed homes took 66 days. Thirty-one percent of homes sold in January were on the market for less than a month.
First-time buyers accounted for 26 percent of purchases in January, down from 27 percent in December and 30 percent in January 2013. This is the lowest market share for first-time buyers since NAR began monthly measurement in October 2008; normally, they should be closer to 40 percent.
All-cash sales comprised 33 percent of transactions in January, up from 32 percent in December and 28 percent in January 2013. Individual investors, who account for many cash sales, purchased 20 percent of homes in January, compared with 21 percent in December and 19 percent in January 2013. Seven out of 10 investors paid cash in January.