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VOL. 126 | NO. 41 | Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fewer People Sign Contracts to Buy Homes in Jan.

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Fewer Americans signed contracts to buy homes in January, the latest evidence that the housing market is struggling to rise above depressed levels.

The National Association of Realtors says its index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes fell 2.8 percent last month to a reading of 88.9, the second straight monthly decline.

The reading was higher than the 75.9 reading from June, the low point since the housing bust. But it's below 100, which is considered a healthy level. The last time it reached that point was in April, the final month people could qualify for a home-buying tax credit.

Sales of previously owned homes fell last year to the lowest level in 13 years. Economists say it will be years before the housing market fully recovers. High unemployment, strict lending standards, and a record number of foreclosures are deterring potential buyers, who fear home prices haven't reached the bottom.

Contract signings of previously owned homes are usually a good indicator of where the housing market is heading. That's because there's usually a one- to two-month lag between a sales contract and a completed deal.

Steven Wood, chief economist for Insight Economics, said the tax credits have pulled home sales on a "rollercoaster ride over the past two years" and that sales have not yet found a steady level.

The Realtors group had reported a modest 2 percent increase in December, which would have marked the fifth such uptick in the previous six months. But the trade association, which began tracking contract signings of homes in 2001, revised its figures to show that signings fell in December from November by nearly 3.2 percent.

Jennifer Lee, senior economist for BMO Capital Markets, said the dismal contract numbers in January is "clearly bad news" for the nation's housing industry.

"And we can't blame weather as three of the four regions saw a decline," she said.

Prices and sales of previously occupied homes have painted a grim picture of that portion of the housing market, which historically accounts for roughly 85 percent of home sales.

Housing prices in all but one of the 20 cities tracked by the Standard & Poor's/Case Shiller index fell in December from November. Eleven of the markets – stretching from Seattle to Miami – hit their lowest point since the housing bubble burst in 2006 and 2007.

Sales of previously occupied homes rose slightly last month. But the seasonally adjusted annual pace of 5.36 million is still far below the 6 million homes a year needed to maintain a healthy market.

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

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PROPERTY SALES 119 482 10,051
MORTGAGES 119 497 11,811
BUILDING PERMITS 268 1,056 21,366
BANKRUPTCIES 50 263 6,700

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