WASHINGTON -- U.S. sales of previously occupied homes fell in September after hitting a two-year high in August, in part because there were fewer homes available for sale.
The National Association of Realtors said Friday that sales of existing homes in the U.S. dipped 1.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.75 million. That's down from a rate of 4.83 million in August, which was the highest in more than two years.
The home sales are still up 11 percent from a year earlier. They remain below the more than 5.5 million that economists consider consistent with a healthy market.
Still, the housing market is recovering after a six-year slump. Economists expect that home sales will rebound in October, noting that mortgage applications have picked up after falling in August.
"We view the dip (in sales) as a pause in an otherwise improving trend," Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse, said in an email to clients.
Home sales have improved in the U.S. from last year, helped by record-low mortgage rates and steady gains in housing prices in most metro areas. Home prices are more stable because there are fewer foreclosures and a low supply of housing has some markets more competitive.
Helping the Recovery?
The U.S. inventory of homes for sale fell in September to 2.32 million. It would take 5.9 months to exhaust the supply at the current sales pace, the lowest sales-to-inventory ratio since March 2006.
Economists noted that rising prices could spur more homeowners to put their homes on the market, which could fuel more sales.
"Persistent news of rising home prices should help the recovery.... as selling conditions continue to improve and sellers become more confident they can get bids closer to the price they are offering," Basile said.
Sales rose slightly in the South last month, compared to August. They fell in all other regions. In the past year, sales have risen at a healthy pace in the Northeast, South and Midwest. They have risen only slightly in the West, where inventories are particularly tight.
The market is still being constrained by tougher lending standards. Many would-be buyers, particularly first-time buyers, are having difficulty qualifying for a mortgage or can't afford the larger down payments that many lenders want.
A low supply of previously occupied homes has also given a boost to the new-home market.
Builders broke ground on homes and apartments at the fastest pace in more than four years last month. The jump could help boost the economy and hiring. Still, the pace of construction is roughly half of what is associated with a healthy market, and new-home sales are coming off depressed levels.
Builders are more confident because they are seeing more prospective buyers visit properties. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index, released Tuesday, rose this month to the highest level in more than six years.
There are also signs that the economy is improving. Retail sales rose at a solid pace in September, reflecting growing confidence among consumers. A measure of consumer confidence released last week reached a five-year high.
A recent report from data provider CoreLogic showed that the so-called "shadow" inventory of homes fell 10 percent in July compared with a year ago. The shadow inventory consists of homes in foreclosure or with seriously delinquent mortgages.
Home price as percentage of income: 152% Median home price: $99,000 Median family income: $65,300
Lansing is the first of five (six, if parts of the South Bend region are included) metropolitan areas located in Michigan to make this list. Home prices in the area are expected to rise by an average of 5.8 percent annually between 2012 and 2017, among the top third projected increases in the country. The median home price is just south of $99,000, or $60,000 less than the median home price in the United States.
Home price as percentage of family income: 152% Median home price: $108,000 Median family income: $70,900
The median home price in Appleton of $108,000 is higher than any metro area on this list, but it is still well below the U.S. median home price of $159,000. Home prices have consistently been cheap in the area for years. The median price between 2007 and 2012 only declined by 4.9 percent, far less than the national drop of 33.3 percent.
Home price as percentage of family income: 150% Median home price: $79,000 Median family income: $52,300
The median family income in Battle Creek of $52,300 is the 23rd lowest among all metro areas surveyed. But with home prices the third cheapest of all metro areas, buying a home is quite affordable. Home prices were relatively cheap before the economic downturn, too. Prices fell by 16.1 percent from their peak in the second quarter of 2006 to the first quarter of 2012, a far more modest decline than the nationwide home price drop of about 33 percent.
Home price as % of family income: 150% Median home price: $80,000 Median family income: $53,300
Homes in the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman area are affordable, even for those with modest incomes. While median family income in the region is $9,600 lower than the national median income, median home prices are even lower — the fifth lowest in the country.
Home price as percentage of family income: 139% Median home price: $79,000 Median family income: $56,900
Memphis is the only metropolitan area on this list not located in the Midwest. While home prices of $79,000 are the third lowest of all metropolitan areas measured, home prices are expected to rise at an annual rate of 6 percent between 2012 and 2017, more than 2 percentage points more than the national median. Home prices are expected to rise 8.6 percent next year alone, one of the biggest growth rates in the country.
Home price as percentage of family income: 133% Median home price: $95,000 Median family income: $71,600
In the Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills metro area, the combined factors of high income and low home prices can make paying for a house easy. The median family income of $71,600 is the highest on this list and nearly $20,000 higher than the nearby Detroit metro. Furthermore, the median home price of $95,000, which has fallen 40.9 percent since it reached its peak in the second quarter of 2005, means that homes have become a bargain for those who can afford to buy one in this shaky economy.
Home price as percentage of family income: 132% Median home price: $80,000 Median family income: $60,000
Median home prices in Rockford are only expected to rise by 2.4 percent in 2013, less than the 5 percent price increase expected nationally. However, between 2012 and 2017, home prices are expected to grow at an annualized rate of 4.2 percent, besting the U.S. rate of 3.9 percent.
Home price as percentage of family income: 121% Median home price: $69,000 Median family income: $57,300
The median monthly mortgage payment for a house in South Bend is only 5.52 percent of the median monthly income. This is the only metro area in the United States, besides Detroit, where mortgage payments are less than 6 percent of median income.
Home price as percentage of family income: 79% Median home price: $41,000 Median family income: $51,900
While home prices were already cheap in Detroit before the housing downturn, they became even cheaper after. Home prices between the first quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2012 fell a whopping 53.7 percent, or 14.3 percent annually — the 10th-largest drop of all metro areas surveyed. With a median home price that is $28,000 lower than any other metro area reviewed, a median mortgage payment is only 3.6 percent of monthly income.