Home Sales Will Struggle to Rebound Without Tax Credit Extension

A rise in existing home sales last month shows things are getting better in the U.S. housing market, but the still-dire unemployment situation and the looming possibility of a jobless recovery may halt the rally by the end of the year. That makes the extension of an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers imperative.

Existing home sales rose 7.2% to a 5.24 million annual rate in July, the most since August 2007 and the fourth straight month the figure increased, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) said Friday. Year-over-year sales grew 5%, the increase since September 2007, just before the markets came crashing down the following month.

“The housing market has decisively turned for the better,” said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. “A combination of first-time buyers taking advantage of the housing stimulus tax credit and greatly improved affordability conditions are contributing to higher sales.”

Rising sales numbers in the past few months may have triggered previously discouraged sellers to re-list their homes, according to Yun.

Total housing inventory at the end of July grew 7.3% to 4.09 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 9.4-month supply at the current sales pace. However, the raw inventory totals are 10.6% lower than they were last year.

Sellers are responding to rising inventories accordingly: The national median existing home price was $178,400 in July, 15.1% lower than a year ago. But the fact that buyers are dipping their toes back into the murky depths of the housing market doesn’t necessarily mean the sector is trending toward a full-blown recovery.

Turn of the Year Makes for Uncertain Future

One in three homes sales last month came from first-time buyers who benefited from the Obama administration’s $8,000 tax credit, which ends after November. First-timers accounted for almost the same amount in June with 29%. That means there could be a significant drop in purchases when that program expires.

The real estate industry is lobbying Congress to extend the first-time buyer tax credit, and Nevada Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters earlier this month an extension is "something we can get done."

With or without a tax break, consumers in this economy are looking for a bargain much like they are with retail sales and auto sales. The bulk of the first-time tax credit sales have come from lower-priced homes, and NAR data supports that. Sales of homes that cost less than $250,000 were up almost 17.8% year-over-year through June. Meanwhile, sales decreased 13.3% in the $250,000-$500,000 bracket, 18.6% in the $500,000-$1 million range, and 32.7% in the $1 million - $4 million range.

Lost pricing power in the more expensive homes wasn’t lost on Pulte Homes Inc. (NYSE: PHM), which last Tuesday finished its acquisition of value-priced homebuilder Centex Corp.(NYSE: CTX), making Pulte the largest homebuilder in the United States.

"I'm not seeing a tremendous amount of good news on the job or economic front, so I do think it's important that the [tax] credit get extended," Pulte Chief Executive Officer Richard Dugas told The Associated Press.

The turn of the year isn’t likely to yield much good news on the job front. Most economists are expecting the unemployment rate to top out around 10%, and although July’s rate dipped one-tenth of a percentage point, the latest weekly initial unemployment insurance claims were discouraging, rising 15,000 to 576,000 for the week ended August 15.

“The improvement in the labor market has stalled,” Scotia Capital Inc. economist Derek Holt told Bloomberg News following the latest jobless claim figures. “Consumer spending will be pushed back on its heels for a longer time than markets are expecting.”

When the bleeding of jobs does peak, an upturn in employment could take some time as the United States experiences a jobless recovery. With an unemployment rate at or around 10%, home inventory levels could creep back in to 2008 territory. 

“[The unemployment rate projection] indicates that the level of labor market slack would be higher by the end of 2009 than experienced at any other time in the post-World War II period, implying a longer and slower recovery path for the unemployment rate,” Fed economists wrote.  “This suggests that, more than in previous recessions, when the economy rebounds, employers will tap into their existing work forces rather than hire new workers. This could substantially slow the recovery of the outflow rate and put upward pressure on future unemployment rates.”

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