February 2013 Existing Home Sales Not As Strong As the Headlines

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The headlines for existing home sales say that sales were stronger in February caused by “improving economy and pent-up demand”.  Our analysis shows sales are stronger – but they are in the lower quartile of growth evidenced over the last 12 months, and definitely not as strong as last month. There is little evidence of an improving rate of growth in the housing market – headlines, pundits, and talking heads notwithstanding.

Econintersect Analysis:

  • Sales down 5.7% month-over-month, Up 6.3% year-over-year
  • Prices up 1.3% month-over-month, Up 10.0% year-over-year
  • The reason prices were up this month is a downward revision in the data for the previous months.
  • this is the largest month-over-month growth of home inventory since April 2011, and the largest February growth since 2010.  But relatively speaking, the amount of homes for sale are historically low.

NAR reported:

  • Sales up 0.8% month-over-month, Up 10.2% year-over-year
  • Prices up 11.6% year-over-year (up 12.3% originally reported the previous month)
  • The market expected annualized sales volumes of 5.00 million (vs the 4.98 million reported)

Overall, this is the twentieth month in a row of improving year-over-year home sales volumes (unadjusted data). Since mid 2011, home sales have been positively growing year-over-year. However, the strong rate of growth seen from mid-2010 to the beginning of 2012 appears to have flat-lined as shown on the graph below.

Unadjusted Year-over-Year Change in Existing Home Sales Volumes

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The graph below presents unadjusted home sales volumes – my takeaway is that February’s growth was the worst incremental growth since September 2012.

Unadjusted Monthly Home Sales Volumes

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Here are the headline words from the NAR analysts:

Lawrence Yun , NAR chief economist, said conditions for continued housing improvement are at play. “Job growth in the improving economy and pent-up demand are causing both home sales and rental leasing to rise. Though home prices are rising much faster than rents, historically low mortgage rates are still making home purchases affordable,” he said. “The only headwinds are limited housing inventory, which varies greatly around the country, and credit conditions that remain too restrictive.”

NAR President Gary Thomas, broker-owner of Evergreen Realty in Villa Park, Calif., said interest rates remain extraordinarily low. “In the history of mortgage interest rates since 1971, the 30-year fixed rate has been below 4 percent in only 15 months, and those have all been in the past 15 months,” he said. “Even with rising home prices, affordability remains historically favorable because home prices over-corrected during the downturn. This means there is still great value for buyers in the current market.”

The graph below does not use seasonally adjusted data in displaying home prices. As the first reporter of home prices. The graph below is not year-over-year change, and the down-tick in home prices is seasonal – but the tick up in December 2012 was unusual.

Comparison of Home Price Indices – Case-Shiller 3 Month Average (blue line, left axis), CoreLogic (green line, left axis) and National Association of Realtors three month average (red line, right axis)

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To remove the seasonality in home prices, here is a year-over-year graph which demonstrates a continuing strengthening in home prices – however, it appears the rate of growth is slowing.

Comparison of Home Price Indices on a Year-over-Year Basis – Case-Shiller 3 Month Average (blue bars), CoreLogic (yellow bars) and National Association of Realtors three month average (red bars)

/images/z existing5.PNG

Econintersect will do a more complete analysis of home prices when the Case-Shiller data is released. The graphs above on prices use a three month rolling average of the NAR data, and show an 9.6% year-over-year gain.

Even so, homes today are more affordable according to the NAR’s Housing Affordability Index.

Unadjusted Home Affordability Index

This affordability index measures the degree to which a typical family can afford the monthly mortgage payments on a typical home.

Value of 100 means that a family with the median income has exactly enough income to qualify for a mortgage on a median-priced home. An index above 100 signifies that family earning the median income has more than enough income to qualify for a mortgage loan on a median-priced home, assuming a 20 percent down payment. For example, a composite housing affordability index (COMPHAI) of 120.0 means a family earning the median family income has 120% of the income necessary to qualify for a conventional loan covering 80 percent of a median-priced existing single-family home. An increase in the COMPHAI then shows that this family is more able to afford the median priced home.

The home price situation according to the NAR:

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $173,600 in February, up 11.6 percent from February 2012. The last time there were 12 consecutive months of year-over-year price increases was from June 2005 to May 2006. The February gain is the strongest since November 2005 when it was 12.9 percent above a year earlier.

“A strong rise in home values is contributing to housing wealth recovery, which has risen by $1.4 trillion in the past year and looks to top that increase this year,” Yun said. “The extra consumer spending arising from growth in housing wealth is expected to be $70 billion to $110 billion this year.”

Distressed homes – foreclosures and short sales – accounted for 25 percent of February sales, up from 23 percent in January but down from 34 percent in February 2012. Fifteen percent of February sales were foreclosures, and 10 percent were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 18 percent below market value in February, while short sales were discounted 15 percent.

According to the NAR, all-cash sales accounted for 30% of sales this month.

First-time buyers accounted for 30 percent of purchases in February, unchanged from January; they were 32 percent in February 2012.

All-cash sales were at 32 percent of transactions in February, up from 28 percent in January; they were 33 percent in February 2012. Investors, who account for most cash sales, purchased 22 percent of homes in February, up from 19 percent in January; they were 23 percent in February 2012.

Inventories rose for the first time since July 2012.

Total housing inventory at the end of February rose 9.6 percent to 1.94 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 4.7-month supply 2 at the current sales pace, up from 4.3 months in January, which was the lowest supply since May 2005. Listed inventory is 19.2 percent below a year ago when there was a 6.4-month supply.

Unadjusted Total Housing Inventory

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Caveats on Use of NAR Existing Home Sales Data

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) is a trade organization. Their analysis tends to understate the bad, and overstate the good. However, the raw (and unadjusted) data is released which allows a complete unbiased analysis. Econintersect analyzes only using the raw data. Also note the National Association of Realtors (NAR) new methodology now has moderate back revision to the data – so it is best to look at trends, and not get too excited about each month’s release.

The NAR re-benchmarked their data in their November 2011 existing home sales data release reducing their recent reported home sales volumes by an average of 15%. The NAR stated benchmarking will be an annual process, and the 2010 data will need to be benchmarked again next year.

Also released today were periodic benchmark revisions with downward adjustments to sales and inventory data since 2007, led by a decline in for-sale-by-owners. Although rebenchmarking resulted in lower adjustments to several years of home sales data, the month-to-month characterization of market conditions did not change. There are no changes to home prices or month’s supply.

Existing home sales is one area the government does not report data – and it is easy to assume that an organization whose purpose is to paint the housing industry in a good light would inflate their data. However, Econintersect is assuming in its analysis that the NAR numbers are correct.

The NAR’s home price data has been questioned by others also. However, Econintersect analysis shows a very good home price correlation to Case-Shiller, CoreLogic’s HPI, and LPS, especially when three-month moving averages are used – as shown in the graph earlier in this article.

Econintersect determines the month-over-month change by subtracting the current month’s year-over-year change from the previous month’s year-over-year change. This is the best of the bad options available to determine month-over-month trends – as the preferred methodology would be to use multi-year data (but the New Normal effects and the Great Recession distort historical data).

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