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By Shobhana Chandra
WASHINGTON - Purchases of new homes in the U.S. exceeded forecasts in January after climbing a month earlier to a one-year high, more evidence the housing market is stabilizing.
Sales, tabulated when contracts are signed, fell 0.9 percent to a 321,000 annual pace from a 324,000 rate in December that was stronger than previously reported, figures from the Commerce Department showed Thursday in Washington. The median estimate of 77 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News called for a rise to 315,000. The number of homes for sale dropped to a record low.
Beazer Homes USA Inc. and D.R. Horton Inc. are among builders benefiting from job gains as well as cheaper properties and lower mortgage rates that have driven affordability to a record high. At the same time, foreclosures that depress prices remain a risk, one reason policy makers including Federal Reserve officials are seeking ways to bolster the industry.
“Sales are very low but are getting better,” said Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. “It’s a combination of an improving economy and labor market.”
Economists’ estimates ranged from 300,000 to 355,000. The rate for December was previously reported at 307,000, a decline of 2.2 percent.
Consumer sentiment this month unexpectedly climbed to a one-year high. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan final index for February rose to 75.3 from 75 at the end of January. Economists projected a reading of 73 after a preliminary February figure of 72.5.
Stocks extended gains after the reports. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index climbed 0.2 percent to 1,366.38 at 10:22 a.m. in New York.
For all of 2011, builders sold 304,000 homes, down 5.8 percent from the previous year.
The recent pickup in sales has helped reduce inventory. There were 151,000 new houses on the market at the end of January, the fewest on record. The supply of homes at the current sales rate dropped to 5.6 months’ worth, the lowest since January 2006, from 5.7 months in December.
The median sales price decreased 9.6 percent in January from the same month last year to $217,100, today’s report showed.
Purchases fell in two of four U.S. regions, led by a 25 percent slump in the Midwest and an 11 percent drop in the West. Sales were up 11 percent in the Northeast and 9.3 percent in the South.
New-home sales, which are tabulated when contracts are signed, have lost their ability to forecast the broader market as demand shifts to previously owned houses. Purchases of existing houses are calculated when a deal closes about a month or two later. New properties made up almost 7 percent of the market last year.
Existing-home purchases rose to a 4.57 million annual rate, the National Association of Realtors reported this week. While it was the highest level since May 2010, distressed properties made up the largest portion of all purchases since April. The median price fell 2 percent to $154,700 last month from January 2011.
Demand is getting a boost as more homes become affordable. The Realtors group’s measure of whether households earning the median income can buy a median-priced property at current interest rates reached record levels in the last three months of 2011, recent data showed.
The fourth-warmest January on record may have helped sustain home buying. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the average temperature was 36.3 degrees Fahrenheit (2.39 degrees Celsius), 5.5 degrees above the 1901-2000 long-term average.
Among other housing data, builders broke ground on more homes than forecast in January, and permits also advanced. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo index of builder confidence climbed in February to the highest level since May 2007.
D.R. Horton, the largest U.S. homebuilder by volume, reported net home orders rose to 3,794 in the final three months of 2011, from 3,363 a year earlier. Beazer Homes said demand jumped 36 percent in that period, and closings on new houses surged more than 60 percent.
“While our visibility into the economic conditions for the remainder of the year is limited, I believe that we will benefit from a gradually improving housing market,” Allan Merrill, chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Beazer, said on an earnings call on Feb. 2.
Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and three other U.S. banks reached a $25 billion settlement with 49 states and the U.S. government to end a probe of abusive foreclosure practices prompted by the collapse of the housing price bubble.
Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has said the central bank’s efforts to spur growth are being blunted by impediments to mortgage lending, and called for more steps to heal housing.
“We need to continue to develop and implement policies that will help the housing sector get back on its feet,” Bernanke told homebuilders on Feb. 10 in Orlando, Fla.