Home sales fell in January due to five headwinds, most of which will continue to frustrate housing activity until home supply and the positive effects of job growth increase, the National Association of Realtors reported.
Existing-home sales fell by 5.1 percent from December to January, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.62 million -- their lowest level since July 2012. January sales were also down 5.1 percent on an annual basis, NAR said.
Housing activity image via Shutterstock.
NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said this winter's unusually cold weather has delayed some sales until the spring, but cited a number of other factors for January's slump in purchases.
"[W]e can't ignore the ongoing headwinds of tight credit, limited inventory, higher prices and higher mortgage interest rates," Yun said in a statement. "These issues will hinder home sales activity until the positive factors of job growth and new supply from higher housing starts begin to make an impact."
The inventory shortage, long-cited as a hindrance to home sales, improved somewhat in January. Total inventory rose 2.2 percent from December, to 1.9 million homes, a 7.3 percent increase from a year ago. The number of months that it would take to sell off all for-sale housing stock at January's slower rate of sales also increased to 4.9 months, up from 4.6 months in December and 4.4 months a year ago.
NAR said a supply of six to 6.5 months represents a "rough balance" between buyers and sellers.
While inventory has ticked up in recent months, the overall market has faltered to a degree. Existing-home sales and pending home sales (which predict future existing-home sales) have both trended downwards, and applications for purchase mortgages recently hit their lowest level since September 2011.
Real estate analysts say that increased mortgage rates and home prices are responsible for the slowdown. According to RealtyTrac, they've driven up the cost of owning a home by 21 percent in the last year.
NAR said that the median existing-home price for all housing types in January was up 10.7 percent from a year ago to $188,900, while the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.43 percent, up from 3.41 percent the year before, according to Freddie Mac.
Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 15 percent of January sales, compared with 14 percent in December and 24 percent in January 2013.
Some analysts say the slowdown is part of a transition to a more stable market. Fewer distressed sales and less investor activity are "signs of a healthier market, even if overall sales decline," Calculated Risk's Bill McBride blogged on Jan. 30 when NAR released pending home sales data that telegraphed today's report.
"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," David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices, wrote in a blog post published Wednesday, before the release of today's numbers.