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VOL. 126 | NO. 247 | Tuesday, December 20, 2011

US Homebuilders Less Gloomy Despite Few Buyers

DEREK KRAVITZ | AP Real Estate Writer

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Rising interest from would-be buyers is leaving U.S. homebuilders less pessimistic about the housing market. But tighter lending standards are still keeping many potential buyers from purchasing new homes.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index rose two points to 21 in December. That's the highest level since May 2010. It's just the second time the index has been at 20 or above in two years.

Still, any reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market. The index hasn't reached 50 since April 2006, the peak of the housing boom.

Last year, the number of people who bought new homes fell to its lowest level on records going back nearly a half-century. The figure for 2011 will be close to that level.

Builders are struggling to compete with foreclosures, which have forced down prices of previously occupied homes. And many buyers are finding it hard to qualify for loans or meet higher required down payments.

Low appraisals are scuttling some deals after contracts have been signed. As a result, some buyers who want to buy a new house are holding off because they can't sell their home.

Those in a position to buy are benefiting from lower prices and mortgage rates. The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage is 3.94 percent, a record low. Yet so far, those factors have done little to boost home sales.

David Crowe, the builder group's chief economist, pointed to some regional pockets of strength. New Orleans, Pittsburgh and other smaller areas, in particular, have reported increased buying.

New homes make up a small portion of housing sales. But they have an outsize impact on the economy. The builder trade group says each new home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes.

Sentiment about current single-family home sales rose two points to 22, according to a separate gauge in the survey. Builders are also more optimistic about future sales.

The outlook in the South rose four points; it ticked up one point in the West. In the Midwest, it was unchanged, and in the Northeast, sentiment fell one point.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 109 433 13,330
MORTGAGES 114 591 17,349
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 11 93 3,391
BUILDING PERMITS 0 366 30,930
BANKRUPTCIES 76 352 12,695
BUSINESS LICENSES 21 108 4,597
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 77 564 19,457
MARRIAGE LICENSES 29 151 4,060

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