We’re in the midst of spring selling season and mixed among all the negative news about unemployment and the worrisome news from overseas there are signs that the real estate market has begun taking its first tentative steps to recovery.

Could the horrible housing recession that we have been experiencing since 2007 finally be coming to an end? The answer depends upon your local market; however, there are a number of national trends that bode well for almost everyone.

1. Price increases lag behind inventory declines
According to the S&P/Case-Shiller National Composite, an index of national home prices, housing prices peaked for the nation as a whole during the second quarter of 2006. But prices continued to increase in some housing markets in 2006 and 2007. Normally, inventory increases result in decreasing prices. In some areas, it took almost a full two years after the inventory started to climb before the prices began to decline. It appears that in many areas, the exact reverse of that situation is happening now. Even though inventories are down, prices in some areas are still flat or declining slightly.

As the market absorbs the inventory and multiple offers continue to occur, prices will start to increase. Normally when this happens, buyers who have been sitting on the sidelines realize the bottom of the market has passed them by. This can trigger a buying frenzy that causes prices to increase even more.

There’s an even stronger impetus, however. Mortgage rates have never been lower. As of last week, rates on 30-year fixed mortgages were almost a full percentage point lower than they were a year ago, which translates into nearly $1,200 less in annual payments on a $200,000 loan.

Low rates have sparked another refinancing boom, but many would-be homebuyers are unable or unwilling to take advantage. The Mortgage Bankers Association expects purchase loan originations will climb by nearly 73 percent next year, to $706 billion. But the trade group recently lowered its purchase originations forecast for 2012, from $415 billion to $409 billion, citing lower home prices and weaker sales than previously expected.

Low interest rates are also driving another trend: It is now cheaper to buy than rent in more than 90 percent of the major metropolitan areas in the United States.

Moreover, the Zillow Real Estate Market Report for April showed monthly home-value appreciation in 88 of 166 metropolitan areas tracked. (Even though prices are increasing in certain areas, Zillow estimates prices are still down 24 percent since their 2007 peak.)

2. A major improvement in the foreclosure market
RealtyTrac is reporting that in April, the number of U.S. homes subjected to foreclosure-related filings dropped to the lowest level since July 2007. Due to the robo-signing scandal, however, the judicial foreclosure states may have a glut of foreclosure property coming on the market very soon. Prime areas of concern include Florida and a number of states in the Northeast. The robo-signing issues delayed lenders from making foreclosures thereby creating a major backlog. Now that the robo-signing issues are resolved, these properties have already begun to come back on the market now.

On the other hand, most other states have continued to push through their foreclosure glut and are in the process of climbing out of this mess. In fact, many report that their markets have stabilized.

3. New-home sales are up
Newly released data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau show that newly built, single-family home sales increased by 3.3 percent in April. This is good news for builders who have cut back production. Currently there are only 5.1 months of new-home inventory available nationally, which is suggestive of the early stages of a seller’s market.

What’s particularly interesting about the data is that "McMansion" sales are back. These are large houses on relatively small lots with top-drawer amenities. Homebuilders are reporting an uptick in the sizes of homes they are building. The Census Bureau is reporting that the average size of new homes built in metro areas has jumped from 2,382 square feet in 2003 to 2,550 square feet last year.

4. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae make banks toe the line on short sales
In an attempt to shorten the short-sale process, which RealtyTrac reports takes an average of 306 days, new regulations governing short sales kick in on June 15 for mortgages held by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Lenders will have to respond to a short-sale request within 30 days. If the lender cannot answer the homeowner within the 30-day period, the lender is required to update the homeowner weekly until the short sale is accepted or declined.

The National Association of Realtors has also jumped into the fray by recommending that lenders put more effort into doing loan modifications that allow families to stay in their homes, reduce defaults and stabilize neighborhoods.

5. Increased affordability
According to the National Association of Homebuilders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index, 77.5 percent of all homes sold in the first quarter of 2012 were affordable to families earning the national median income ($65,000). This is an increase from 75.9 percent in 2011.

Again, while these national signs bode well for the real estate market, what is happening in your local market is influenced by the amount of inventory, the number of foreclosures and REOs, as well as the demand. The easiest way to track this is to watch the number of months of inventory. If the inventory is declining, chances are there is good news for your market in the very near future. If there are still too many foreclosures and REOs, you still may have some rocky times ahead.

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