Existing-home sales are projected to drop 6 percent to 6.65 million this year from a record 7.08 million in 2005, according to the latest annual forecast by the National Association of Realtors trade group.

New-home sales, meanwhile, are projected to fall 10.9 percent to 1.14 million from the record 1.28 million last year – both sectors would see the third best year following 2005 and 2004. Housing starts are forecast at 2 million in 2006, which is 3.2 percent below the 2.07 million in total starts last year, according to the forecast.

David Lereah, NAR’s chief economist, said mortgage interest rates are trending up but will remain favorable. “Economic growth and job creation are providing a favorable backdrop for the housing market, but rising interest rates have an offsetting effect,” Lereah said in a statement.

“Home sales will move up and down somewhat over the remainder of the year but stay at a high plateau, meaning this will be the third strongest year on record.” He expects the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage to rise to 6.9 percent by the end of the year.

Growth in the U.S. gross domestic product is forecast at 3.7 percent in 2006, with an average unemployment rate of 4.8 percent.

NAR President Thomas M. Stevens from Vienna, Va., said in a statement that home prices are expected to cool, but not as much as in earlier projections. “The market is in a process of normalization – appreciation will return to normal single-digit patterns, providing solid investment returns into the future.”

The national median existing-home price for all housing types is likely to increase 6.4 percent this year to $221,700, while the median new-home price is expected to rise 2.3 percent to $242,700.

Inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index is seen at 3.4 percent in 2006, the Realtor group reported. Inflation-adjusted disposable personal income should grow 3.8 percent this year.

The next annual forecast is scheduled for May 9, and the Pending Home Sales Index will be released May 2.

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