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Home prices remain near post-crisis low; new-home sales fall 7%

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New data show a U.S. housing market that is continuing to struggle but is perhaps nearing a bottom, with new home sales falling and prices remaining near their post-crisis low.

The latest survey from S&P/Case-Shiller noted basically stagnant prices from January to February.

Adjusted for seasonal variations in sales, prices rose slightly in February after several months of decline. Without adjusting for seasonal differences, the survey of prices in 20 metropolitan areas fell to its lowest level since the housing market downturn began.

But analysts pointed to bright spots hidden in the data — and some ventured that the housing market may have finally found its low.

Prices were steadying in key markets such as Nevada and Florida, and the existing inventory of new homes for sale had fallen sharply since a year ago. The inventory of homes, measured in the number of months they would take to sell, stood at 5.3, down from seven a year ago, according to an analysis by the High Frequency Economics consulting firm. Inventory is considered a key sign of future housing investment.

Through March, sales technically fell, to 328,000, but only because the sales figures reported by the Commerce Department in February were adjusted sharply upward, from 313,000 to 353,000. Without that adjustment, the March data would have registered a 4.8 percent increase.

The trend, HFE economists said, “is clearly upwards. ... Prices are firming, too. Still a very long way to go, but the market is gaining as payrolls rise and credit conditions ease.”

The results of the February survey are “a positive indicator that more regional housing markets are turning the corner and will likely experience stable, to slightly rising, home prices in the year ahead,” Barclays Research analyst Michael Gapen said of the latest results.

After six months of declines through the end of 2011, home prices rose slightly in February, rising on a seasonally adjusted basis by about 0.15 percent above January. On a yearly basis, that still marks a 3.5 percent decline from the previous February.

But of the 20 metropolitan areas included in the study, 12 experienced price gains — up from eight just two months ago.

Barclays also noted that over the past three months, prices have risen at an annualized rate of 1 percent in Nevada, Florida, Arizona and California — areas that suffered the most from the collapse of the housing bubble.

In the Washington area, home prices rose 0.1 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis from January to February.

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