Existing Home Sales Tumble, Tarnishing Housing Recovery

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John Locher/AP
By Jason Lange

U.S. home resales unexpectedly fell in April as tight inventories pushed prices higher, giving a cautious signal on the strength of the housing market.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday existing home sales dropped 3.3 percent to an annual rate of 5.04 million units.

March's sales pace was revised up to 5.21 million units from the previously reported 5.19 million units. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast home resales rising to a 5.24 million-unit pace last month.

The relative weakness in home resales puts a dent in what had been one of the brighter spots of the broader U.S. economy after gross domestic product barely grew in the first quarter.

The number of homes on the market last month fell 0.9 percent from a year earlier, helping push the median home price up 8.9 percent from the same month in 2014.

Weak Manufacturing

In another report, the Philadelphia Fed said its business activity index dipped to 6.7 this month from 7.5 in April.

Any reading above zero indicates expansion in the region's manufacturing. Manufacturing has been pressured by a strong dollar and deep spending cuts by energy companies whose profits have been squeezed by lower crude oil prices.

"This is consistent with our expectation that the domestic manufacturing sector will continue to face headwinds from the lagged effects of a stronger dollar and lower energy prices," said Jesse Hurwitz, an economist at Barclays in New York.

Does Your Home Live Up to the American Average?
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Existing Home Sales Tumble, Tarnishing Housing Recovery
In 2013, the median lot size of a new sold single-family house was 8,596 square feet, or just under 0.2 acres. While that might not seem like a lot for you suburban homeowners, a regional breakdown shows that the small average size isn't due to urban inhabitants alone. The Northeast enjoys the largest average lot, at 13,052 square feet, while the less densely populated South and West lay claim to just 8,649 square feet and 6,796 square feet, respectively.
From a footprint of 1,650 square feet in 1978, the average American home has grown 50 percent, to 2,478 square feet. Yet tough times seem to be squeezing our expansionary attitude. Although new single-family homes sold in 2013 clocked in at a median 2,478 square feet, single-family homes completed in 2013 amounted to just 2,384 square feet. Homebuilder confidence has plummeted into pessimism in the last few months, hinting that the housing market's road to recovery might be rougher than expected.

While birth rates have held relatively steady for the past 40 years, everyone apparently needs more elbow room. The share of homes with four or more bedrooms has jumped from 27 percent in 1978 to 51 percent in 2013. And where would a bedroom be without a bathroom? While just 8 percent of 1978 homes had three or more baths, 37 percent of homes now fall in that category.

From 2008 to 2013, both the share of homes with four or more bedrooms and the share of homes with three or more bathrooms have jumped 10 percentage points, while median square footage is up 10.9 percent for the same period.

If there's one strong sign of new housing demand, it's home prices. After nose-diving during the Great Recession to a median sales price of just $216,700, home prices have been roaring back up. In 2013, the median sales price for a new single-family home was $268,900. But for those on the housing hunt, don't be discouraged. Home prices today still don't hold a candle to costs in 2006, according to the well-regarded Case-Shiller Home Price Index. In 2006, the index topped 200 before plummeting to less than 140, and current rates put the index just above 170.
It is America, after all. Our industrialized nation was built on the back of Henry Ford, and America is in no danger of breaking its automobile addiction. In 2013, a whopping 300,000 of the 429,000 new single-family homes sold included a two-car garage. And 98,000 new homes included a three-car garage -- the highest amount since 2007. Of all new homes built, only 10,000 failed to include a garage or carport.
American homebuyers are building bigger homes than ever before. But if there's one thing the recent recession has shown us, bigger isn't always better. Although 30 percent of Americans believe real estate is the best long-term investment, homeownership isn't for everyone. There are plenty of reasons to spend less or invest elsewhere -- and leave keeping up with the Joneses to Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
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