A flat pattern in home sales activity should continue for the next couple months before improving over the summer, according to the latest forecast by the National Association of Realtors.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said the extent of an expected recovery hinges on better access to affordable loans.
"Things are beginning to improve, but the availability of affordable mortgages is uneven around the country and sometimes within metropolitan areas," he said. "As anticipated, we continue to look for a soft first half of the year, for both housing and the economy, before notable improvements in the second half. Some time is needed for FHA and new conforming jumbo loans to become widely available."
The Pending Home Sales Index, a forward-looking indicator based on contracts signed in March, edged down 1 percent to 83 from a downwardly revised level of 83.8 in February and was 20.1 percent lower than the March 2007 index of 103.9.
NAR President Richard F. Gaylord, a broker with RE/MAX Real Estate Specialists in Long Beach, Calif., said additional costs in many markets are hindering a recovery.
"Our members are telling us that more buyers are looking at homes but are slow in signing contracts, and that's contributing to the weakness in pending home sales," he said. "In many cases buyers are waiting for greater access to affordable credit, especially in higher cost areas, but some are disappointed with what appears to be unnecessarily restrictive lending requirements. The good news this week is there is some discussion toward relaxing some of the burdensome lending practices."
The PHSI in the Northeast jumped 12.5 percent in March to 80.8 but remains 15.4 percent below a year ago. In the South, the index slipped 0.1 percent to 84.9 and is 26.7 percent lower than March 2007. The index in the West declined 1.4 percent in March to 91.2 and is 9.5 percent below a year ago. In the Midwest, the index fell 10.4 percent in March to 74.1 and is 22.3 percent below March 2007.
Existing-home sales are projected to rise from an annual pace of 4.95 million in the first quarter to 5.82 million in the fourth quarter. For all of 2008, existing-home sales are likely to total 5.39 million, and then rise 6.1 percent to 5.72 million next year.
"Although more than half of local markets are expected to see price growth this year, the aggregate existing-home price will decline 2.4 percent in 2008, driven by a relatively few markets that are very oversupplied," Yun said.
The median price is forecast at $213,700 this year before rising 4.1 percent to $222,600 in 2009.
Some areas already are seeing sales increases, underscoring that all real estate is local. In March, unpublished snapshot data shows sales in Bakersfield, Calif., and Jackson, Miss., were higher than a year ago. At the same time, price gains were noted in markets such as Buffalo-Niagara Falls and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. On May 13, NAR will report first-quarter data on metropolitan area home prices, covering about 150 metro areas, and state home sales.
"Although some market adjustments are necessary, a downward overshooting of the housing market would cause unnecessary loss in economic output, income and jobs," Yun said. "It is critical to stimulate housing demand by inducing fence sitters back into the market. A home buyer tax credit on any home purchase would accomplish that."
New-home sales are expected to fall 30.9 percent to 536,000 this year before rising 10.1 percent to 590,000 in 2009. Housing starts, including multifamily units, will probably drop 29.5 percent to 955,000 in 2008, and then rise 1.3 percent to 967,000 next year. The median new-home price is estimated to fall 3.7 percent to $238,000 this year, and then rise 5.4 percent in 2009 to $250,900.
The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is likely to rise gradually to 6.2 percent by the end of the year, and then average 6.3 percent in 2009. NAR's housing affordability index is expected to rise 10 percentage points to 127 for all of 2008.
Growth in the U.S. gross domestic product should be 1.5 percent this year and 2.3 percent in 2009. The unemployment rate is projected to average 5.3 percent in 2008 and 5.5 percent next year.
Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, is seen at 3.4 percent this year and 2.2 percent in 2009. Inflation-adjusted disposable personal income is forecast to grow 1.2 percent in 2008 and 3.0 percent next year.