WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans who bought previously occupied homes fell in September. Home sales are on pace to match last year's dismal figures -- the worst in 13 years.
The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that home sales fell 3 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.91 million homes. That's below the 6 million that economists say is consistent with a healthy housing market.
The housing market has been hobbled by foreclosures, weak demand and falling home prices. Last year 4.91 million previously occupied homes were sold, the lowest level since 1997.
Homes at risk of foreclosure edged down to 30 percent of sales, from 31 percent in August. Many of the sales went to investors, who are buying homes under $100,000. First-time homebuyers, critical to a housing recovery, were unchanged at 32 percent of all sales.
Many people are reluctant to purchase a home more than two years after the recession officially ended. Even the lowest mortgage rates in history haven't been enough to lift sales.
Some can't qualify for loans or meet higher down payment requirements. Many with good credit and stable jobs are holding off because they fear that home prices will keep falling.
Home sales are also being hurt by a steep decline in first-time buyers. First-time buyers are critical because their purchases of low and moderately priced homes allow sellers to move up to more expensive homes.
Most economists say home prices will keep falling, by at least 5 percent, through the rest of the year. Many forecasts don't anticipate a rebound in prices until at least 2013.
The Obama administration is trying to expand a program that allows homeowners to refinance their mortgages. But economists say that will do little to help the depressed housing market.
Wealthy buyers are still purchasing homes priced at more than $1 million in the affluent Northeast and growing Midwest. And investors are scooping up dirt-cheap homes in the battered South and West for less than $100,000. They are specifically targeting foreclosures in hard-hit areas, such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Tampa, Fla.
Foreclosures and short sales -- when a lender agrees to sell for less than what is owed on a mortgage -- have made up a larger portion of home sales. Those homes, which sell at an average 20 percent discount, drag down all home prices and hurt sales.
The high rate of foreclosures has made re-sold homes much cheaper than new homes. The median price of a new home is now roughly 30 percent higher than the price for a previously occupied home -- almost twice the normal markup.
Even homes that are under contract and near closing are falling apart at the last minute. The Realtors' group has noted an increasing number of deals have been canceled because appraisals came in below a negotiated price.
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Location: Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
Sq. Ft.: 16,500
So you've got the 13-seat movie theater, underground path with stone walls and sconces, hand-carved walnut furniture, game room, Roman spa with mosaic walls, Italian stone fountains, tennis court, 10-car garage and -- drumroll -- dog-grooming station. Yeah, that all comes with this jaw-dropper. But a two-lane bowling alley? That's just rad.
So you can sunbathe and not get sunburned at home. If you get tired of soaking in ultraviolet-free rays, you've also got a bowling alley and tennis court at your disposal. And lots of vintage wine in the wine cellar.
No room for swimming laps in this puppy. But that's not what it's about: You've got the billiards table, bowling alley and tennis court for exercise. (OK, maybe it's a stretch to consider billiards a form of exercise.)
We're not quite sure why this house is called "Tabula Rasa" -- the epistemological theory that humans are born as blank slates without any built-in mental content. One interpretation: The original owner feels he willed this mega-mansion into existence. It boasts its own private indoor basketball court and two-lane bowling alley.
Touted as "Buckhead's finest estate," this Southern mansion sits on three private acres and boasts a picture-perfect pool and hot tub in the back. But what really caught our eye was the home's golf simulator.
For those elusive roller-hockey aficionados: Odds are, during the games here, checking is a big no-no; you nail someone into the boards in this arena, and they've got a good chance of tumbling over them.
Location: Castle Rock, Colo.
Price: $3.999 million
Sq. Ft.: 10,668
Stretching 73 acres, this estate delivers a whole lot of real estate and clearly had an owner at some point who adores our national pastime. In addition to a baseball diamond and indoor batting range, the mansion offers a stunning backyard pool and seven-car garage.
Location: Incline Village, Nev.
Price: $49.9 million
Sq. Ft.: 2,368
For some tycoons there may come a time when collecting cars gets old. If that happens, they should buy this compound. It has a garage that is so big that you can store nine buses in it. The residence spans five parcels that can be purchased individually. They contain the Main House, Lake House and Carriage House (which houses the garage).