Sales of new houses edged down 1.2 percent in November as a huge jump in demand in the Northeast was not enough to offset weakness elsewhere, the government reported yesterday.
The Commerce Department said new single-family houses were sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 664,000 units in November following an increase of 2.1 percent in October. The October figure originally was reported as a decline of 1.5 percent.
The November sales decline was accompanied by a big jump in prices, with the median price of a new house soaring by 12.3 percent to $119,000.
However, analysts said the price advance was a reflection of a shift in regional sales patterns rather than a sign that housing prices were about to skyrocket.
The Northeast, which has the highest housing prices of any region, enjoyed a giant 37.1 percent jump in sales last month while the other three geographic regions suffered sales declines.
Analysts said much of the increase in the Northeast could be attributed to unusually mild weather during the month. Still, they said, the overall decrease could have been much worse, given the plunge in stock prices in October that caused consumer confidence to falter.
This weakness has been largely offset by declines in mortgage rates in the weeks immediately following the crash as the Federal Reserve sought to cushion the shock to the economy from the loss of wealth in the stock market, many analysts said.
"We were obviously concerned that there might be some negative effects from the stock market crash, but if there were any they are being offset by the positive effects of more affordable mortgage rates," said Lyle Gramley, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association.
But David Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, said the unevenness of the sales figures was of concern. Sales would actually have fallen by almost 10 percent had it not been for the jump in demand in the Northeast. "We had declines in three of the four regions of the country, including a pretty sizable drop in the South," he said.
Seiders said sales next year probably will decline by about 10 percent from this year's pace to a projected 625,000 units -- still a good year for the housing industry.
The 37.1 percent increase in the Northeast brought sales there to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 170,000 units.
The decreases elsewhere were led by a sharp 16.4 percent drop in the South, to an annual rate of 204,000 units. Sales were down 7.1 percent in the Midwest, to an annual rate of 92,000 units, and fell 3.4 percent in the West, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 198,000 units.
The decline in new-house sales, the first since a 2.5 percent drop in September, came as in sales of existing houses fell 4.5 percent, to an annual rate of 3.41 million units, according to a report released Monday by the National Association of Realtors.
Mortgage rates have been on a roller-coaster this year, rising sharply in the weeks before the Oct. 19 market collapse and then falling for a few weeks before beginning to rise again.
The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. reported yesterday that rates again are on a downward trend, dropping to 10.61 percent in the current week from 10.69 percent two weeks ago. Rates had hit a high this year of 11.58 percent in mid-October.