Monday, February 25, 2008

Home resales dropped to lowest level in nine years further eroding growth

Home Resales in U.S. Probably Dropped, Further Eroding Growth

By Courtney Schlisserman

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Sales of existing homes in the U.S. probably dropped in January to the lowest level in at least nine years, according to a survey of economists, signaling the housing slump is deepening and will weigh on growth in 2008.

The National Association of Realtors will report that purchases fell 1.8 percent to an annual rate of 4.8 million, the fewest since record-keeping began in 1999, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of 63 economists.

Mounting foreclosures are adding to a glut of unsold homes that is driving down property values. Would-be homebuyers may be waiting for even lower prices, keeping the housing market depressed for a third year and dragging the economy close to a recession.

``With the backdrop of elevated inventories of unsold homes and continued falling home prices, prospects for the housing market in general seem quite grim,'' said Dana Saporta, an economist at Dresdner Kleinwort in New York.

The Realtors group is scheduled to release the report at 10 a.m. in Washington. Estimates in the Bloomberg News survey ranged from 4.65 million to 5 million.

For all of last year, sales of single-family homes declined 13 percent, the most since 1982, the group said Jan. 24. Earlier this month, it forecast sales this year would slip to 5.38 million, from 5.65 million for all of 2007.

The effects of the worst housing recession in 25 years have spread into other areas of the economy. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's general economic index fell this month to minus 24, the weakest reading in seven years.

Recession Odds Rising

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg News this month put the chance of the U.S. entering a recession at 50-50, up from 40 percent odds a month earlier. The Federal Reserve last week said it lowered its growth forecast and now expects the economy to expand 1.3 percent to 2 percent in the fourth quarter from the same period of 2007, compared with the 1.8 percent to 2.5 percent it projected in October.

The Commerce Department is scheduled to release the January report on new home sales on Feb. 27. While economists expect that figure to decline, some measures indicate demand for new home sales may be near the bottom.

Homebuilder Confidence

For example, confidence among U.S. homebuilders rose for a second straight month in February and companies said there were more prospective buyers touring properties, the National Association of Homebuilders said on Feb. 19. In addition, the Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment showed a record number of Americans said lower prices made conditions more favorable for buying a house.

Elevated inventories and sluggish demand are prompting sellers to lower their prices. The National Association of Realtors forecast on Feb. 7 that prices for existing homes will decline 1.2 percent this year.

``We're seeing prices now that are basically back to '02, '03 levels,'' Ara Hovnanian, chief executive officer of Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Feb. 21. ``That begins to get compelling for customers.''

Even so, the housing market ``continues to be in a very difficult position right now,'' and weaker sales are cutting into builders' profits, Hovnanian said.

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