Updated March 30 at 10:33am

Purchases of new U.S. homes decline to 368,000 annual rate


WASHINGTON - Purchases of new U.S. homes unexpectedly declined in October, showing limited progress in the housing market recovery.

Sales dropped 0.3 percent to a 368,000 annual pace following a revised 369,000 rate in September that was weaker than initially reported, figures from the Commerce Department showed today in Washington. The median estimate of 74 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a 390,000 sales pace.

Purchases in the last six months have climbed 2.8 percent, showing limited job growth and access to credit are still restraining the residential real estate market. The figures help explain why Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has singled out housing as one of the industries to nurture in order to spur the economic recovery.

“Better job growth is the key factor,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James & Associates Inc. in St. Petersburg, Florida, who projected a 365,000 rate of sales. “We really have a lot of ground to make up from the recession.”

Stocks fell after the figures, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropping 0.2 percent to 1,395.97 at 10:46 a.m. in New York. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note decreased to 1.62 percent from 1.64 percent late yesterday.

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from sales rates of 365,000 to 418,000. The September reading was previously reported as a 389,000 annual pace.

The median price for a new house climbed 5.7 percent in October from the same month last year to $237,700.

By region

Purchases increased in two of four regions last month, led by a 62.2 percent surge in the Midwest to the highest level in almost three years. Sales in the West jumped 8.8 percent to the fastest pace since July 2008.

Home purchases dropped 32.3 percent in the Northeast. The Commerce Department said in a statement that there was “minimal” effect on the data from superstorm Sandy.

The supply of homes rose to 4.8 months at the current sales rate from 4.7 months in September. There were 147,000 new houses on the market at the end of October compared with 145,000 a month earlier.

Sales of new homes, tabulated when contracts are signed, are considered a timelier barometer than purchases of previously owned dwellings, which are calculated when a contract closes. Newly constructed houses accounted for 6.7 percent of the residential market in 2011, down from a high of 15 percent during the boom of the past decade.

Existing homes

Previously owned homes sold at a 4.79 million rate in October, close to the two-year high 4.83 million pace reached in August, according to data released last week by the National Association of Realtors.

With fewer distressed properties on the market, prices have started to stabilize. Home foreclosures dropped 19.2 percent in October from a year earlier, according to the RealtyTrac Foreclosure report. In September, they declined to the lowest level since July 2007.

Home prices rose in the year ended in September by the most since July 2010, a report yesterday showed. The S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values in 20 cities climbed 3 percent from September 2011, after advancing 2 percent in the year to August, the group said today in New York. Values from July through September, compared with the same period last year, climbed the most since the second quarter of 2010.

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