New reports point to housing slowdown

Purchase mortgage apps drop to lowest level since Sept. 2011, housing starts hit 17-month low

Weakening housing activity image via Shutterstock.Weakening housing activity image via Shutterstock.

Economic reports released today show that activity in two sectors of the housing market dropped to its lowest levels in more than a year, providing some of the latest evidence that elevated mortgage rates and home prices may have slowed the pace of the real estate recovery.

“Housing is not about to collapse into another bust, but it is due for a pause after a strong rebound since the first half of 2012,” wrote David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices, explaining the thrust of the reports.

For the week ending Feb. 14, a seasonally adjusted purchase index from the Mortgage Bankers Association hit its lowest level since September 2011, the trade group said today. On an unadjusted basis, demand for purchase loans for the week dropped 17 percent from the same week a year before.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported today that housing starts in January hit a 17-month low, falling 7 percent year over year to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 573,000, a figure that dovetails with the National Association of Home Builders’ finding yesterday that builder confidence plunged in February.

Other indicators also point to a slowdown. Pending home sales and existing-home sales have trended down in recent months, though one of the few brights spots in recent housing data are new-home sales, which grew at a fast clip in January.

Some trade groups and analysts have said that the unusually cold weather has contributed to weakening activity in the housing market.

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“While we don’t want to dismiss out of hand the downbeat message of these measures of residential construction activity, we think that they largely reflect a correction from the sharp gain in starts in November and the recent unseasonably severe weather,” Capital Economics, an economic research firm, said in response to the report on housing starts.

The biggest impetus for the recent slump, however, may be substantial increases in both home prices and mortgage rates. The combination of both has pushed up the cost of financed homeownership by roughly a quarter from last year in more than 300 counties nationwide, according to a report data aggregator RealtyTrac is set to release tomorrow.

“Last year was a nice bounce-back year for the housing market, particularly home prices, but we cannot expect to see the patterns of 2013 repeat in 2014,” said RealtyTrac Vice President Daren Blomquist. “This year will be more of a reality check type of year as home prices and sales slow down to allow incomes and confidence to catch up.”

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