The uptrend in existing-home sales continues, with January sales rising for the third consecutive month with a pace that is now above levels a year ago, according to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

Existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, increased 2.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.36 million in January from a downwardly revised 5.22 million in December, and are 5.3 percent above the 5.09 million level in January 2010. This is the first time in seven months that sales activity was higher than a year earlier.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said the improvement is good but could be better. “The uptrend in home sales is consistent with improvements in the economy and jobs, which are helping boost consumer confidence,” Yun said. “The extremely favorable housing affordability conditions are a big factor, but buyers have been constrained by unnecessarily tight credit. As a result, there are abnormally high levels of all-cash purchases, along with rising investor activity.”

A parallel NAR practitioner survey shows first-time buyers purchased 29 percent of homes in January, down from 33 percent in December and 40 percent in January 2010 when an extended tax credit was in place.
Investors accounted for 23 percent of purchases in January, up from 20 percent in December and 17 percent in January 2010; the balance of sales were to repeat buyers. All-cash sales rose to 32 percent in January from 29 percent in December and 26 percent in January 2010.

“Increases in all-cash transactions, the investor market share and distressed home sales all go hand-in-hand. With tight credit standards, it’s not surprising to see so much activity where cash is king and investors are taking advantage of conditions to purchase undervalued homes,” Yun said.

All-cash purchases are at the highest level since NAR started measuring these purchases monthly in October 2008, when they accounted for 15 percent of the market. The average of all-cash deals was 20 percent in 2009, rising to 28 percent last year.

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $158,800 in January, down 3.7 percent from January 2010. Distressed homes edged up to a 37 percent market share in January from 36 percent in December; it was 38 percent in January 2010.

NAR President Ron Phipps, broker-president of Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I., said the median price is being dampened by unusual market factors. “Unprecedented levels of all-cash purchases, primarily of distressed homes sold at deep discounts, undoubtedly pulls the median price downward,” Phipps said. “Given the levels of inventory we see today, we believe that traditional homes in good condition have held their value.”

Total housing inventory at the end of January fell 5.1 percent to 3.38 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 7.6-month supply at the current sales pace, down from an 8.2-month supply in December. The inventory supply is at the lowest level since December 2009 when there was a 7.3-month supply.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage rose to 4.76 percent in January from 4.71 percent in December; the rate was 5.03 percent in January 2010.
Single-family home sales rose 2.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.69 million in January from 4.58 million in December, and are 4.9 percent higher than the 4.47 million level in January 2010. The median existing single-family home price was $159,400 in January, down 2.7 percent from a year ago.

Existing condominium and co-op sales increased 4.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 670,000 in January from 640,000 in December, and are 7.9 percent above the 621,000-unit pace one year ago. The median existing condo price was $154,900 in January, which is 10.2 percent below January 2010.

Regional Sales
Northeast: Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast fell 4.6 percent to an annual pace of 830,000 in January from a spike in December and are 1.2 percent below January 2010. The median price in the Northeast was $236,500, which is 4.0 percent below a year ago.

Midwest :Existing-home sales in the Midwest rose 1.8 percent in January to a level of 1.14 million and are 3.6 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $126,300, which is 3.2 percent below January 2010.

South: In the South, existing-home sales increased 3.6 percent to an annual pace of 2.02 million in January and are 8.0 percent higher than January 2010. The median price in the South was $136,600, down 2.1 percent from a year ago.

West: Existing-home sales in the West rose 7.9 percent to an annual level of 1.37 million in January and are 7.0 percent above January 2010. The median price in the West was $193,200, down 5.7 percent from a year ago.