New home sales inch upward

WASHINGTON — Sales of newly built homes were flat last month, but were 7 percent above the rock-bottom lows of January as the battered U.S. real estate market appears to be starting a slow and gradual recovery.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that sales rose 0.3 percent in April to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 352,000.

But the increase came from a downwardly revised rate of 351,000 in March, and sales were still down 34 percent from a year earlier.

The median sales price fell to $209,700, down almost 15 percent from a year earlier.

"It's still tough to be a builder," wrote economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors. "New home sales remain near the bottom."

There were 297,000 new homes for sale at the end of April, down 4 percent from 310,000 in March and the lowest number of properties on the market in nearly eight years. At the current sluggish sales pace, it would take more than 10 months to exhaust the supply of new homes on the market.

"We aren't seeing a huge upswing in market conditions, but we aren't seeing things fall apart again, either," wrote Mike Larson, real estate analyst at Weiss Research.

This month however, is shaping up to be better, said Larry Wisdom, president of Keystone Custom Homes in Lancaster Pa.

His company is on track to sell about 30 homes by the end of this month, up from 13 in the same month a year earlier. Buyers, he said, are realizing that they need to act quickly to take advantage of a new $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers that expires Nov. 30.

"I'm very optimistic that it's going to be a significantly stronger summer," Wisdom said.

But the competition from foreclosures continues unabated.

A record 12 percent of homeowners with a mortgage are behind on their payments or in foreclosure as the housing crisis spreads to borrowers with good credit, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Thursday.

The foreclosure rate on prime fixed-rate loans doubled in the last year, and now represents the largest share of new foreclosures.

The pain, however, is spreading throughout the country as job losses take their toll. The number of newly laid off people requesting jobless benefits fell last week, the government said Thursday, but the number of people receiving unemployment benefits was the highest on record. These borrowers are harder for lenders to help with loan modifications.

And in another troubling sign, rates on 30-year home loans rose this week. The average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rose to 4.91 percent this week, from an average of 4.82 percent a week earlier, Freddie Mac said Thursday. The higher the rate, the lower the appeal of refinancing or buying a home for many consumers.


AP Real Estate Writer J.W. Elphinstone contributed to this report.

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