Existing U.S. home sales decrease 0.6 percent

February data shows lowest levels since July

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WASHINGTON --- Sales of existing homes fell for a third consecutive month in February, pushing sales down to the lowest level since last July. There is concern the fragile housing rebound is faltering, making it harder for the overall economy to recover.

The National Association of Realtors said Tuesday that sales of previously occupied homes dropped 0.6 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.02 million.

The weakness in sales depressed prices with the median home price dropping almost 2 percent from a year ago to $165,100.

Sales activity varied across the country. In the Midwest, sales jumped almost 3 percent, and were up more than 2 percent in the Northeast. In the South, sales fell about 1 percent, and were down almost 5 percent in the West.

"A number of housing markets may be stabilizing or starting to rebound, though we do not yet see, in many respects, a sustained nationwide recovery," said Jeffrey Mezger, the president and chief executive officer of KB Home, which builds homes in 10 states. The company reported a $55 million quarterly loss on Tuesday.

In fact, sales nationally have been declining since November, eroding gains made over the summer. The downward direction troubled economists because the government has taken unprecedented steps to support the housing sector.

To keep mortgage rates low, the Federal Reserve has spent almost $1.25 trillion. In addition, Congress extended a deadline for homebuyers to qualify for tax credits. Both programs are set to end soon.

High unemployment and tough lending standards appear to be holding buyers back. That could derail housing as it tries to emerge from the worst downturn in decades and harm the overall economy.

"Until job growth resumes, housing demand will remain weak and susceptible to another lurch down when the homebuyer tax credit expires in April," said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Last month, the inventory of unsold homes jumped by 312,000 to 3.59 million.

Lawrence Yun, the chief economist for the Realtors, called that increase "discomforting" and said if it climbs above 10 months' supply it could put significant downward pressure on prices.

There is an $8,000 credit for first-time buyers and a $6,500 credit for current homeowners who have lived in their property for the past five years.

Buyers must sign sales contracts by the end of April and complete their purchases by the end of June to qualify for the tax credits. So far, however, there has been little indication that the tax credit extension is generating much activity.

"In recent months sales have reversed the bulk of the increase driven by the first round of the tax credit," said Paul Dales, an economist with Capital Economics.

Augusta Metro home sales
MONTHUNITS SOLDAVG. SALES PRICEDAYS ON MARKET
February 2010337$146,097163
January 2010296$151,633162
February 2009315$145,659133

Source: Greater Augusta Association of Realtors

Interest rates

WASHINGTON --- Record-low interest rates are still needed to energize the economic recovery, a Federal Reserve official said Tuesday.

Janet Yellen, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and President Obama's top pick to be vice chair of the central bank, said with the sluggish recovery she anticipates unemployment will stay high for years.

The jobless rate -- now at 9.7 percent -- will dip to 9.25 percent by the end of this year and then to 8 percent by the end of 2011, she predicted, calling the scenario a "very disappointing prospect."

Despite encouraging signs late last year, the housing market now "seems to have stalled," she said during a speech delivered in Los Angeles.

Still, Yellen said she is hopeful that mortgages will stay affordable even after the Fed shuts down a $1.25 trillion program at the end of this month that lowered mortgage rates and bolstered the housing market.

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