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U.S. housing market remains fragile despite low mortgage rates

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; A01

After showing signs of a fledgling recovery from the worst downturn in decades, the U.S. housing market appears to be heading back toward the doldrums, as the expiration of a lucrative tax credit for buyers and increased uncertainty about the economy cause home sales to plummet.

The sudden weakness in residential real estate has struck nearly every region of the country, according to recent government and industry data, driving down sales of new and previously owned homes alike in May. On Thursday, the National Association of Realtors said an index that measures sales contracts signed on existing homes plunged 30 percent in May, more than twice what analysts had forecast, to the lowest level since the group started tracking the numbers in 2001.

Those sharp declines come despite record-low mortgage rates and historically cheap home prices. The market's renewed fragility highlights concerns about whether the U.S. economy will hurtle back into recession and illustrates the impact of the nation's high unemployment rate, now at 9.7 percent. On Friday, the government will issue jobless figures for June that could signal what is in store for housing and economic growth.

As long as people are without jobs or fear losing their livelihoods, they are unlikely to commit to buying a home and saddling themselves with 30 years of mortgage payments.

"It sounds simplistic but it bears repeating: 'No job = No house,' " Mike Larson, an analyst with Weiss Research, wrote in a note to clients Thursday. "With so many Americans unemployed or underemployed, the housing market is going to keep hurting."

In a report last month, Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies singled out high joblessness as "one of the biggest drags" on the market. Based on past downturns, the report concluded that job growth is highly correlated to a sustained housing recovery, even more so than falling mortgage interest rates.

Many housing analysts are rethinking their predictions for the market's performance for the year. More than half of the 106 economists and analysts surveyed by Macromarkets in June said they expect a dip in home prices; that's up from 40 percent in May.

Despite the flash of pessimism, many economists expect the market to stabilize, but they won't have a clean read on its direction until the fall or winter, when the lingering effects of the tax credit clear the system.

That credit, which expired April 30, heavily distorted normal home sales patterns by enticing people to buy homes earlier than they had planned, thereby eating into future sales, economists said.

"The tax credit was like a Band-Aid over the housing market," said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities. "Now that the Band-Aid has been ripped off, we've found that the wound has not quite yet healed."

Surprising drops

Home sales were expected to decline once the credit ended, but May's acute drops have surprised many analysts. If the trend continues through the rest of the year, it could upend the market's tepid rebound and undermine the broader economy.

The unsteadiness is further reflected in the fact that the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage hit a record low of 4.65 percent this week, but applications for home-purchase mortgages were down for all but one of the past eight weeks, slipping 3.3 percent last week, according to industry data.

Complicating the recovery's prospects is an excess supply of unsold homes on the market, swelled in part by increasing numbers of foreclosed properties for sale. Even though the number of homes on the market is down significantly from its peak, the national inventory of vacant homes for sale or rent remains uncomfortably high at 6.5 million. That's 2 million units more than the market needs, Vitner said.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com, said he expects the glut of unsold homes will rise because lenders are starting to sell more foreclosed properties to the public. The number of foreclosures for sale rose 11 percent in the first quarter from the previous quarter -- the first quarterly increase since mid-2008, Zandi said.

Many lenders have come under political pressure to delay foreclosures and modify troubled loans. But as they get a better handle on which loans are unsalvageable, they are starting to complete more foreclosures and put them up for sale, Zandi said.

Government data released last month show that the number of foreclosures completed by the nation's largest national banks and federally regulated thrifts jumped 19 percent in the first quarter from the previous one.

Pulling down values

Once those foreclosures hit the market, however, they sell at steep discounts and pull down the values of surrounding homes. If the share of these distressed sales rise, as many economists predict, prices will suffer.

The recently expired tax break may have diluted the impact of foreclosures by boosting the number of traditional sales, said housing economist Tom Lawler. It also encouraged anxious buyers to bid up prices so they could make their purchase before the tax credit program ended, he said.

The tax credit offered up to $8,000 to some first-time buyers and $6,500 for certain repeat buyers. To qualify, buyers had to sign a contract by April 30 and close by June 30. But lenders and real estate agents reported widespread delays in processing a crush of mortgage applications in time for the June deadline. The Realtors group estimates that as many as 180,000 could miss out on the credit as a result of the backlog.

To keep the momentum going, Congress week voted this week to extend the closing date on the tax credit to Sept. 30. President Obama is expected to sign the measure Friday morning.

With the government's incentives for buyers gone by early fall and a cloudy employment picture, economists seem more keenly aware of the fragile nature of the housing sector's health.

"We're kind of sitting here in low tide," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial. "We're not sure if the tide is coming in and we're about to drown, or if it's moving out and we'll be left standing there dry as a bone."

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