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Housing Prices Still Weak, But Show Welcome Improvement

Home prices revived somewhat during the 2nd quarter, but the housing market is still struggling.  Prices climbed an impressive 3.6 percent, compared during the three months ending March 31.  Despite the upbeat news, home prices are still down 5.9 percent compared with the 2nd quarter of 2010.  The rise in home prices came after three straight quarters of drops, the S&P/Case-Shiller national index — a recognized gauge of residential real-estate markets — reported.  The year-over-year decline was slightly more than the than the 4.7 percent drop that had been forecast by a consensus of experts at Briefing.com.  A separate monthly index of home prices in 20 major metro areas reported a month-over-month gain of 1.1 percent for June, and a 4.5 percent decline compared with last year.

The quarter-over-quarter price increase may be the last one for a while, said Stan Humphries, chief economist for the real estate website Zillow. He expects prices will weaken again.  “The August turmoil of credit rating downgrades, negative GDP revisions, stock oscillations and European debt woes are likely to leave a mark on both August home sales and home value appreciation,” according to Humphries.  “Monthly home value appreciation in June may mark the last hurrah before beginning to weaken in the back half of this year,” Humphries said.

Foreclosures still constituted a higher proportion of sales throughout the winter and spring as families took a break from home shopping; cash-rich investors dominate the market.  Nationally, home prices have returned to their 2003 levels.

Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington and Boston saw the largest monthly increases.  Cities hit hardest by the housing crisis, such as Las Vegas and Phoenix, reported small seasonal increases.  Housing has remained a drag on the economy and is one of the most important reasons why it is still struggling to recover two years after the recession officially ended.  Home sales in 2011 are likely to be at the lowest level in 14 years.  Home prices in many cities have reached their lowest points since the market bubble burst more than four years ago.  Home prices in Cleveland, Detroit, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tampa are at 2000 levels.  “These shifts suggest that we are back to regional housing markets, rather than a national housing market where everything rose and fell together,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the S&P’s index committee.  “This month’s report showed mixed signals for recovery in home prices. No cities made new lows in June 2011, and the majority of cities are seeing improved annual rates,” Blitzer said.  “Looking across the cities, eight bottomed in 2009 and have remained above their lows.  These include all the California cities plus Dallas, Denver and Washington D.C., all relatively strong markets.”

“There’s no theoretical floor for prices. If the economy worsens, housing will get into a vicious cycle of falling prices and foreclosures,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “When prices fall, confidence wanes.”

Foreclosures and short sales — when a lender sells for less than what is owed on a mortgage – accounted for approximately 30 percent of all home sales in July, an increase from about 10 percent reported in normal years.  Nearly 1.7 million potential foreclosures are being delayed, according to real estate firm CoreLogic, either by backlogged courts or lenders waiting for the conclusion of state and federal investigations into questionable foreclosure practices.

“Prices aren’t going to rebound back rapidly,” said Paul Dales, a senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in Toronto.  “Most people think that when the downturn ends the recovery will be pretty good, but that’s not going to be the case at all.”

 “Consumer confidence is still weak, and the housing sector remains in a fragile state,” According to Robert Toll, chairman of Toll Brothers, Inc. the nation’s largest luxury homebuilder.  “The nation’s economy continues to suffer from the lack of jobs in housing construction and the related manufacturing and service sectors that a decent new-home market would typically generate.” 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said “an overhang of distressed and foreclosed properties, tight credit conditions for builders and potential homebuyers, and ongoing concerns by both potential borrowers and lenders about continued house price declines” are hurting the housing market.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors, described the activity as “underperforming.  The market can easily move into a healthy expansion if mortgage underwriting standards return to normalcy,” he said.  “We also need to be mindful that not all sales contracts are leading to closed existing-home sales.  Other market frictions need to be addressed, such as assuring that proper comparables are used in appraisal valuations, and streamlining the short sales process.”

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