December 2013 Existing Home Sales Improve But Are Still Soft

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The headlines for existing home sales say that sales growth improved marginally in December month-over-month. Our analysis says the sales last month were so bad that any data would look good in comparison. The three month rolling averages are still declining demonstrates how soft the data is.

Econintersect Analysis:

  • Sales growth accelerated 9.2% month-over-month, up 3.2% year-over-year – sales growth rate trend is decelerating using the 3 month moving average.
  • Prices growth accelerated 0.1% month-over-month, Up 7.0% year-over-year – price growth rate trend is decelerating using the 3 month moving average.
  • The homes for sale inventory declined significantly this month, and is historically low for Decembers.

NAR reported:

  • Sales up 1.0% month-over-month, down 0.6% year-over-year
  • Prices up 9.9% year-over-year
  • The market expected annualized sales volumes of 4.87 to 4.90 million (vs the 4.87 million reported)

Last month (November) ended 28 straight months of improving year-over-year home sales volumes (unadjusted data). Since mid 2011, home sales have been positively growing year-over-year. The strong rate of growth seen from mid-2010 to the beginning of 2012 flat-lined after the beginning of 2012 as shown on the graph below. The data in July spiked above this 2013 trend channel, but the subsequent data returned to the channel. Now, home sales volumes are below a two year growth channel.

Unadjusted Year-over-Year Change in Existing Home Sales Volumes (blue line) – 3 Month Rolling Average (red line)

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The graph below presents unadjusted home sales volumes.

Unadjusted Monthly Home Sales Volumes

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Here are the headline words from the NAR analysts:

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said housing has experienced a healthy recovery over the past two years. “Existing-home sales have risen nearly 20 percent since 2011, with job growth, record low mortgage interest rates and a large pent-up demand driving the market,” he said. “We lost some momentum toward the end of 2013 from disappointing job growth and limited inventory, but we ended with a year that was close to normal given the size of our population.”

NAR President Steve Brown, said that with jobs expected to improve this year, sales should hold even despite rising home prices and higher mortgage interest rates. “The only factors holding us back from a stronger recovery are the ongoing issues of restrictive mortgage credit and constrained inventory,” he said. “With strict new mortgage rules in place, we will be monitoring the lending environment to ensure that financially qualified buyers can access the credit they need to purchase a home.”

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 plateau in home price rate of growth.

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 a 7.6% year-over-year gain.

Even so, homes today are still affordable according to the NAR’s Housing Affordability Index – although this index continues to decline.

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 of 2013 was $197,100, which is 11.5 percent above the 2012 median of $176,800, and was the strongest gain since 2005 when it rose 12.4 percent.

The median existing-home price for all housing types in December was $198,000, up 9.9 percent from December 2012. Distressed homes – foreclosures and short sales – accounted for 14 percent of December sales, unchanged from November; they were 24 percent in December 2012. The shrinking share of distressed sales accounts for some of the price growth.

According to the NAR, all-cash sales accounted for 27% of sales this month.

First-time buyers accounted for 27 percent of purchases in December, down from 28 percent in November and 30 percent in December 2012.

All-cash sales comprised 32 percent of transactions in December, unchanged from November; they were 29 percent in December 2012. Individual investors, who account for many cash sales, purchased 21 percent of homes in December, up from 19 percent in November, but are unchanged from December 2012.

Inventories declined marginally.

Total housing inventory at the end of December fell 9.3 percent to 1.86 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 4.6-month supply at the current sales pace, down from 5.1 months in November. Unsold inventory is 1.6 percent above a year ago, when there was a 4.5-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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