Existing-Home Sales Slide to a 3-Year Low as Housing Market Stumbles

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The numbers: Existing-home sales ran at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.99 million in December, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday. That was the lowest since November 2015. Sales were down 6.4% for the month, and 10.3% lower than the year-ago rate.

What happened: Sales of previously-owned homes tumbled in December, capping a dismal year for housing. The full-year sales tally for 2018, 5.34 million, made it the worst year since 2015, when the nascent housing recovery was knocked off course by a mortgage regulation change.

December’s pace of sales missed the MarketWatch consensus forecast for a 5.10 million selling pace.

Big picture: The housing market wobbled badly last year. Now, all eyes are on the critical spring selling season to determine whether 2018 was a fluke or the beginning of the end of the cycle.

Even as sales slipped in December, inventory did as well. At the current sales pace, it would take 3.7 months to exhaust available supply, down from 3.9 months in November. Properties stayed on the market for an average of 46 days in December, up from 42 days in November.

But demand is waning: the median sales price in December, $253,600, was only 2.9% higher than a year ago. No regions saw an increase in sales in December, and first-time buyers made up 32% of all transactions in the month, making no headway.

What they’re saying: In December, home showings were 7.2% lower than a year ago, the fifth straight month of yearly declines, according to a report from ShowingTime. The company’s data comes from more than 1.2 million active listings that subscribe to its services. “Buyer traffic continues to subside across all regions of the U.S. compared to the record numbers recorded at the same time last year,” ShowingTime said in a statement. “This is potentially good news for buyers, who are seeing less competition in the market.”

“In the very near term, we think we could see a brief period of stronger housing data,” said economists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“The decline in mortgage rates is very well timed ahead of the spring selling season. We suspect that potential homebuyers who may have been scared from the market during the period of rising rates in the fall could see it as an opportunity to jump back in. Moreover, the labor market is currently very strong with a high number of job openings and upward pressure on wages.”

Market reaction: The 10-year Treasury note, which most fixed-rate mortgages track, has caught a bid in recent weeks, helping make home loans more affordable for borrowers.


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