After four years of declines, home sales on a national basis finally appear to be turning around. Closed sales, which have risen three straight months, and pending contracts, up for five straight months, are at levels above normal spring and summer increases.

First-time buyers in particular have stepped up to take advantage of deeply discounted prices, low mortgage rates, and the buyer tax credit. In a few markets, the rebound has been quite heated, with sales doubling from year-ago levels. In some cases there's even multiple bidding-though mostly over foreclosed and other distressed properties. Nonetheless, it's clear that buyers are returning.

What's more, home prices and mortgage payments in relation to income are comfortably below historical levels, at least in many markets. That suggests home prices have overcorrected downward. 

Some markets, as a result, could experience a snap back in home prices, with price gains in the high single digits or low double digits, compared with historical average annual price appreciation of 4 percent. Houston, Denver, and San Diego are among the markets on track to have better-than-average price gains in the next two years.

Still, the housing market is far from being out of the doldrums. 

The economic rebound will be one of the most tepid we've ever seen. Consumers are being extra cautious, saving more to pump up their depleted retirement accounts. The unemployment rate in 2010 is expected to be at around 10 percent. The federal budget deficit will force up mortgage rates next year, though not alarmingly.

But because consumers' view of home values is fundamentally changing, the momentum of rising home sales will likely continue in 2010. Buyers are no longer hesitant about home purchases on the fear of further price declines. And that sets the stage for a steady release of pent-up housing demand.