Behind the Housing Market’s Spring Surge

Behind the Housing Market’s Spring Surge

REUTERS/Mike Blake
By Yuval Rosenberg

The housing market is emerging from its winter doldrums: Several different measures released this morning all point to a recent pickup in the real estate market.

Sales of existing homes jumped 6.1 percent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.19 million — well above expectations and the best month since September 2013. “The pickup in sales is echoed in stronger mortgage applications, new home sales, and faster rising prices—all suggesting a rebound in demand as the spring selling season approaches,” UBS economists wrote Wednesday.

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The median sale price last month was $212,100, up 7.8 percent from a year earlier (compared with a 7.2 percent annual gain as of February). “It looks like the combination of limited available inventory and a decline in the share of distressed sales in the market continue to put upward pressure on prices,” J.P. Morgan economist Daniel Silver wrote.

US Existing Home Sales Chart

US Existing Home Sales data by YCharts

Mortgage purchase applications, meanwhile, rose 5 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis in the week ending April 17, suggesting that the increased activity from March has also continued into April.

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That trend may also reflect a policy change by the Federal Housing Administration in January. “Almost immediately after the mortgage insurance premium was cut by 50 basis points, purchase applications started to climb to highs not seen since the summer of 2013,” the IHS Global Insight economists Patrick Newport and Stephanie Karol wrote Wednesday. “We expect that the rule change will support market entry among younger buyers.” First-time homebuyers played an important part in the March increase, they suggest, as they increased their purchases by 10 percent year-over-year. Investors, meanwhile, bought 9 percent fewer properties than they had in March 2014, as the charts below from UBS detail.

The housing recovery had softened in recent months, even beyond the winter’s weather-related issues, so the new data — while not yet signaling a stronger trend — is an encouraging sign for increased activity in the spring and potentially beyond. “Home sales should pick up through the rest of 2015,” Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group, wrote Wednesday. “The fundamentals for housing are solid, with average job growth (200,000+ per month), good affordability, very low mortgage rates, increasing consumer confidence, expanding access to credit, and significant pent-up demand after years of depressed sales.”

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