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existing_home_sales_coolExisting-home sales declined in January to their lowest rate in nine months, but the pace was higher than a year ago for the fourth straight month, according to the National Association of REALTORS®. All major regions experienced declines in January, with the Northeast and West seeing the largest.

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, fell 4.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million in January (lowest since last May at 4.90 million) from an upwardly-revised 5.07 million in December. Despite January’s decline, sales are higher by 3.2 percent than a year ago.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the housing market got off to a somewhat disappointing start to begin the year with January closings down throughout the country.

“January housing data can be volatile because of seasonal influences, but low housing supply and the ongoing rise in home prices above the pace of inflation appeared to slow sales despite interest rates remaining near historic lows,” he says. “REALTORS® are reporting that low rates are attracting potential buyers, but the lack of new and affordable listings is leading some to delay decisions.”

Total housing inventory at the end of January increased 0.5 percent to 1.87 million existing homes available for sale, but is 0.5 percent lower than a year ago (1.88 million). Unsold inventory is at a 4.7-month supply at the current sales pace—up from 4.4 months in December.

The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $199,600, which is 6.2 percent above January 2014. This marks the 35thconsecutive month of year-over-year price gains.

“Although sales cooled in January, home prices continued solid year-over-year growth,” adds Yun. “The labor market and economy are markedly improved compared to a year ago, which supports stronger buyer demand. The big test for housing will be the impact on affordability once rates rise.”

According to Freddie Mac, the average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage in January fell to 3.67 percent, its lowest level since May 2013 (3.54 percent), and down from 3.86 percent in December. The average annual rate was 4.17 percent in 2014.

The percent share of first-time buyers declined to 28 percent in January, the lowest since June 2014 (also 28 percent) and down from 29 percent in December. First-time buyers represented 26 percent of sales last January.

NAR President Chris Polychron says that the Federal Housing Administration’s overly restrictive approval process limits buyers’ access to condos even though these properties are among the strongest in the agency’s portfolio. “Condominiums offer an affordable option and are the first step to homeownership for many homebuyers,” says Polychron. “NAR has urged the FHA to develop policies that will give buyers access to more flexible and affordable financing opportunities and a wider choice of approved condo developments.”

All-cash sales were 27 percent of transactions in January, up from 26 percent in December but down from 33 percent in January of last year. Individual investors, who account for many cash sales, purchased 17 percent of homes in January, unchanged from last month and below January 2014 (20 percent). Sixty-seven percent of investors paid cash in January.

Distressed sales—foreclosures and short sales—were 11 percent of sales in January, unchanged from last month but down from 15 percent a year ago. Eight percent of January sales were foreclosures and 3 percent were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 15 percent below market value in January (unchanged from December), while short sales were discounted 12 percent (also unchanged from last month).

Properties typically stayed on the market slightly longer in January (69 days) than December (66 days) and a year ago (67 days). Short sales were on the market the longest at a median of 128 days in January, while foreclosures sold in 63 days and non-distressed homes took 68 days. Thirty percent of homes sold in January were on the market for less than a month.

Single-family and Condo/Co-op Sales

Single-family home sales dropped 5.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.27 million in January from 4.50 million in December, but are 3.9 percent above the 4.11 million pace a year ago. The median existing single-family home price was $199,800 in January, up 6.3 percent from January 2014.

Existing condominium and co-op sales declined 3.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 550,000 units in January from 570,000 in December, and are now 1.8 percent below a year ago. The median existing condo price was $198,300 in January, which is 5.3 percent higher than a year ago.

Regional Breakdown

January existing-home sales in the Northeast fell 6.0 percent to an annual rate of 630,000, but are 3.3 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $247,800, which is 2.7 percent above a year ago.

In the Midwest, existing-home sales declined 2.7 percent to an annual level of 1.08 million in January, but are still 0.9 percent above January 2014. The median price in the Midwest was $151,300, up 8.2 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the South decreased 4.6 percent to an annual rate of 2.07 million in January, but are still 5.6 percent above January 2014. The median price in the South was $171,900, up 7.4 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the West dropped 7.1 percent to an annual rate of 1.04 million in January, but are still 1.0 percent above a year ago. The median price in the West was $291,800, which is 7.2 percent above January 2014.

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