Friday, April 16, 2010

BUYING & SELLING: US incentives help home sales figures exceed forecasts

WASHINGTON — The housing market is coming back from the winter doldrums. The number of buyers who agreed to purchase previously occupied homes rose sharply in February, far exceeding expectations, a report said yesterday.

That’s a sign that a second round of government incentives is pushing buyers to make offers before a deadline at the end of this month. Buyers may also be motivated by worries that mortgage rates will climb later this year.

The National Association of Realtors said yesterday that its seasonally adjusted index of sales agreements rose 8.2 percent from January to a February reading of 97.6. January’s reading was revised slightly downward to 90.2.

The report “may signal the early stages of a second surge of home sales this spring,’’ said Lawrence Yun, the trade group’s chief economist.

A reading of 100 is equal to the level of sales activity in 2001, when the index started.

Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected the index would fall slightly to 90.3. The index is considered a barometer for future sales activity because there is typically a one- to two-month lag between a signed sales contract and a completed deal.

Home sales had been sluggish during the winter, partly because shoppers felt less rushed after lawmakers extended the deadline to qualify for a tax credit. First-time buyers can get a tax break of up to $8,000 if they sign a contract by April 30.

“The tax credit is causing them to move quicker,’’ said Kevin Cottrell, cofounder of Kelsey Cottrell Realty Group in St. Louis. “They’re not going to turn down an $8,000 credit from Uncle Sam.’’

Lawmakers also added a credit of $6,500 for existing homeowners who move. But that has had little impact, Cottrell said.

The biggest month-to-month increase was in the Midwest, where pending sales jumped nearly 22 percent. Sales climbed 9 percent in the South and Northeast, but fell about 5 percent in the West.

However, the housing market will be tested in the second half of the year as government support fades away.

Unless the tax incentive is extended again, the jump in home sales “will prove temporary, and another setback will occur before too long,’’ wrote Joshua Shapiro, chief US economist at MFR Inc.

By Alan Zibel Associated Press April 6, 2010

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