International Property

US home sales in September fall for sixth straight month to slowest pace in three years

Prices and supply of homes are rising, while buyer traffic has declined, according to the National Association of Realtors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 9:00pm

US home sales fell for the sixth straight month in September, a sign that housing has increasingly become a weak spot for the economy.

The National Association of Realtors said Friday that sales declined 3.4 per cent last month, the biggest drop in two and a half years, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.15 million. That is the lowest sales pace since November 2015.

Hurricane Florence dragged sales in North Carolina, but even excluding the storm’s effects, sales would have fallen more than 2 per cent, the NAR said. After reaching the highest level in a decade last year, sales of existing homes have declined steadily in 2018 amid rapid price increases, higher mortgage rates and a tight supply of available houses.

Still, analysts are mostly optimistic about the broader economy. Most forecast growth will top 3 per cent at an annual rate in the July-September quarter, after a robust expansion of 4.2 per cent in the second quarter.

“Housing is no longer a tailwind for the economy, but the headwinds are blowing very gently,” said Michelle Meyer, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, before the report was released.

Housing is likely to weaken further in the coming months. September’s weakness came before mortgage rates jumped further this month to their highest levels in seven years. Sales fell 4.1 per cent in September from a year ago.

“Without a doubt there is a clear shift in the market,” said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun.

Housing is no longer a tailwind for the economy, but the headwinds are blowing very gently
Michelle Meyer, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

One sign of the shift is that demand for existing homes is slowing. Home prices are rising at a slower rate and the supply of available houses, while low, is increasing. Buyer traffic had also declined, Yun said.

And with rents also stabilising in many cities, many would-be buyers may not feel as much pressure to buy a new home.

“Renting itself may be seen as a better bargain as rising mortgage interest rates, still-rising home prices and sluggish wage growth dent the affordability advantage of a typical mortgage,” said Aaron Terrazas, senior economist at real estate data provider Zillow.

US housing market looks headed for worst slowdown in years

Sales have fallen by the most in the West, where most of the nation’s hottest real estate markets are located and where prices have soared for several years. Sales tumbled 12.2 per cent in that region in the past year, compared with just 5.6 per cent in the northeast and 1.5 per cent in the Midwest. They dropped just 0.5 per cent in the South from a year earlier, despite a sharp decline in September due to Hurricane Florence.

The highest-priced homes are also reporting slower sales, a shift from earlier this year, when sales slowdowns were concentrated in mid-priced and cheaper homes. Homes priced at US$1 million and higher saw sales drop 2 per cent from a year ago.

Tighter US rules on foreign investment to have knock-on effect for Chinese seeking American homes

Higher borrowing costs are making housing less affordable. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage slipped this week but remained near a seven-year high of 4.85 per cent. A year ago, it stood at 3.88 per cent.

There are also signs that homeowners are increasingly unwilling to sell as mortgage rates rise. That is because many have rates below 4 per cent, so selling a home and buying a new one would require them to accept a higher rate.

The Realtors surveyed consumers and found that 16 per cent are unwilling to give up their mortgage rate and buy a new home. That was up from a typical level of 10 per cent.