Pending home sales increased as more buyers took advantage of improved affordability conditions, according to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORSÂ®. Big gains in the South and Midwest offset modest declines in other regions.
The Pending Home Sales Index, a forward-looking indicator based on contracts signed in December, rose 6.3 percent to 87.7 from an upwardly revised reading of 82.5 in November, and is 2.1 percent higher than December 2007 when it was 85.9.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the index shows a modest rebound. â€œThe monthly gain in pending home sales, spurred by buyers responding to lower home prices and mortgage interest rates, more than offset an index decline in the previous month,â€ says Yun. â€œThe biggest gains were in areas with the biggest improvements in affordability.â€
NARâ€™s Housing Affordability index rose 10.9 percent in December to 158.8, the highest on record.2 The HAI shows that the relationship between home prices, mortgage interest rates and family income is the most favorable since tracking began in 1970.
â€œSignificant uncertainty still clouds the housing market despite improved affordability conditions. For a sustainable housing market recovery and, hence, sustainable economic recovery, we need a significant housing stimulus and mortgage availability for qualified borrowers,â€ adds Yun.
The PHSI in the Northeast slipped 1.7 percent to 62.1 in December and is 14.5 percent below a year ago. In the Midwest the index jumped 12.8 percent to 83.7 but remains 1.2 percent below December 2007. The index in the South surged 13.0 percent to 96.8 in December and is 1.6 percent above a year ago. In the West, the index fell 3.7 percent to 97.5 but remains 17.5 percent higher than December 2007.
NAR President Charles McMillan, says the rise in contract signings is encouraging. â€œHowever, housing activity remains weak compared with potential demand, and the market is fragile given the economic backdrop,â€ he said.
â€œWe canâ€™t take our eye off the need to stimulate housing, which can set the foundation for an economic recovery,â€ McMillan says. â€œLast weekâ€™s actions in the House to eliminate the repayment feature on the first-time home buyer tax credit, and to raise mortgage loan limits, are helpful. However, we need to take additional steps to meaningfully draw down inventory and stabilize home prices.â€
McMillan says some enhancements that could bring more buyers into the market include expanding the $7,500 tax credit to all home buyers and extending it until the end of 2009, and making loan limit increases permanent. â€œWe also need to direct funds in the Troubled Asset Relief Program to add liquidity to the mortgage market, buy down mortgage interest rates and increase other forms of credit,â€ he says
Yun says the outlook for housing and the economy is murky. â€œAlthough Congress and the Obama administration are taking steps to help the economy, the stimulus package must deal with the root cause of the economic downturn, and apply the right fix to turn it around. If housing is ignored, a significant downward overshooting of home prices would continue to drag the economy down independent of the scale of the stimulus,â€ Yun says.