Pending home sales unexpectedly rise

By Patrick Rucker
Monday, December 10, 2007; 5:29 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pending sales of existing U.S. homes rose modestly in October, bucking Wall Street forecasts, but the decline from a year ago was the third largest on record, a reminder of how far the housing market has fallen.

The National Association of Realtors said on Monday its Pending Home Sales Index, based on contracts signed in October, was up 0.6 percent at 87.2 from an upwardly revised index of 86.7 in September.

The forward-looking indicator of home sales was more upbeat than expected by economists, who had forecast a decline of 1.0 percent.

The data, which measures contracts signed on sales that have yet to close, helped lift U.S. stock prices and drag down prices for government bonds. The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average (.DJI) climbed 101.45 points to close at 13,727.03.

The data came a day ahead of a meeting of policy-makers from the U.S. Federal Reserve, and traders saw it as increasing the likelihood the central bank would trim interest rates by a modest quarter-percentage point, and not a bolder half-point as some had thought possible.

Still, the boost in pending sales was not enough to increase analysts' hopes for a housing recovery anytime soon.

"It's possible that after a big hit, housing sales will stabilize, but the short answer is that it's too soon to say," said James O'Sullivan, an economist with UBS Securities in Stamford, Connecticut.

Year-over-year, pending sales were down 18.4 percent, the third-largest drop since the trade group began keeping such records in January 2001. Only the declines registered in August and September were deeper.

Lawrence Yun, the trade group's chief economist, said home sales and prices should level out next year after this year's declines.

Existing home sales should hit a pace of 5.70 million in 2008, compared with an expected 5.67 million this year, the NAR said. It said median home prices would likely fall 1.9 percent this year, but rise 0.3 percent in 2008 to $218,300.

This year's home price decline would be the first annual decline since the Great Depression, Yun said.

"Certainly, the market has turned .. far worse than I anticipated," he said, noting that the NAR had downwardly revised its homes sales forecast several times this year.

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