A fascinating snapshot of the U.S. housing market emerged yesterday with the release of government and industry figures for April. Sales of new houses were way up, while sales of existing houses were down. New mortgage applications were up, while refinancing has just about disappeared from the landscape.
Sales of new houses jumped in April to just shy of a record high, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 978,000 houses, an unexpected upturn of 9.2 percent over March, Commerce Department figures showed.
The numbers showed the April increase came after four months of decline. Analysts had expected new-house sales to continue to sag in April mostly because of an upward creep in interest rates. Some now speculate that many people took the plunge out of fear rates would go even higher.
Nationally, mortgage rates reached 7.23 percent for the past two weeks, the highest rate in 18 months. Federal Reserve policymakers have signaled they might raise rates at the end of June.
That prospect "has created an urgency for some people," said Zvi Barzilay, chief executive officer of Toll Bros. Inc., a luxury home builder active in the Washington region. "We have seen the increase in traffic and the increase in sales."
Sharon and Joe Mule bought a new four-bedroom Toll Bros. house in Clarksville, Md., just last month, spurred to buy by the possibility the rates could rise. "We managed to get a good rate just before [rates] started going up," said Sharon Mule.
The rise in sales of new homes also led to a rise in prices. The median price of all new houses sold last month climbed 3 percent to a record $159,500.
Existing-home sales declined in April by 3.3 percent from March's record high. Some analysts ascribed the decline to a lack of existing houses for sale; others saw a market that was cooling down.
Applications for new mortgages were stronger in April than any time this year, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported yesterday. And mortgage refinancings were half what they were in January, association economist Brian Carey said.
Locally, "the refinancing market is lower than it's ever been for us," said Carrie Staples, a mortgage broker at Sigma Financial Services. "Everyone who wanted to refinance has."