U.S. home sales slump to 12-year low; glimmers of hope emerging

U.S. existing home sales plunged to a 12-year low in December, but declining mortgage rates raised cautious optimism that the embattled housing market could be close to finding a floor.

The report from the National Association of Realtors on Friday also showed the median house price increasing at the slowest pace since early in the COVID-19 pandemic as sellers in some parts of the country resorted to offering discounts.

The Federal Reserve’s fastest interest rate-hiking cycle since the 1980s has pushed housing into recession.

“Existing home sales are somewhat lagging,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York. “The decline in mortgage rates could help undergird housing activity in the months ahead.”

Existing home sales, which are counted when a contract is closed, fell 1.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.02m units last month, the lowest level since November 2010. That marked the 11th straight monthly decline in sales, the longest such stretch since 1999.

Sales dropped in the Northeast, South and Midwest. They were unchanged in the West. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast home sales falling to a rate of 3.96 million units. December’s data likely reflected contracts signed some two months earlier.

Home resales, which account for a big chunk of U.S. housing sales, tumbled 34.0% on a year-on-year basis in December. They fell 17.8% to 5.03m units in 2022, the lowest annual total since 2014 and the sharpest annual decline since 2008.

The continued slump in sales, which meant less in broker commissions, was the latest indication that residential investment probably contracted in the fourth quarter, the seventh straight quarterly decline.

This would be the longest such streak since the collapse of the housing bubble triggered the Great Recession.

While a survey from the National Association of Home Builders this week showed confidence among single-family homebuilders improving in January, morale remained depressed.

Single-family homebuilding rebounded in December, but permits for future construction dropped to more than a 2-1/2- year low, and outside the pandemic plunge, they were the lowest since February 2016.


Mortgage rates retreating

The worst of the housing market rout is, however, probably behind. The 30-year fixed mortgage rate retreated to an average 6.15% this week, the lowest level since mid-September, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac.

The rate was down from 6.33% in the prior week and has declined from an average of 7.08% early in the fourth quarter, which was the highest since 2002. It, however, remains well above the 3.56% average during the same period last year.

The median existing house price increased 2.3% from a year earlier to $366,900 in December, with NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun noting that “markets in roughly half of the country are likely to offer potential buyers discounted prices compared to last year.”

The smallest price gain since May 2020, together with the pullback in mortgage rates, could help to improve affordability down the road, though much would depend on supply. Applications for loans to buy a home have increased so far this year, a sign that there are eager buyers waiting in the wings.

House prices increased 10.2% in 2022, boosted by an acute shortage of homes for sale. Housing inventory totaled 970,000 units last year. While that was an increase from the 880,000 units in 2021, supply was the second lowest on record.