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Existing-home Sales Rise - is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Existing-home sales, including single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 5.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.18 million units in September, up from a level of 4.91 million in August, according to data released Friday morning by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Sales volume was 1.4 percent higher than the 5.11 million-unit pace in Sept. 2007, the first year-over-year gain posted in existing home sales since November 2005.

"The sales turnaround which began in California several months ago is broadening now to Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Rhode Island," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. Much of the sales activity was in foreclosed homes. "Compared to a fairly small share of foreclosures or short sales a year ago, distressed sales are currently 35 to 40 percent of transactions. These are pulling the median price down because many are being sold at discounted prices," Yun said.

Housing areas that saw a lot of foreclosures are starting to see more sales. Some prices are actually being bid up, as demand increases for foreclosed homes. In Sacramento and Riverside counties in California as well as in Prince William County in Virginia, sales have been up for the last six months. Home sales have also picked up in the third quarter in the Kalamazoo area. "If you're looking for some good news, inventory is down and pendings (pending sales) are up. People are buying," said Tom Seelbinder, a real-estate agent with Re/Max Advantage in Portage.

Total housing inventory at the end of September fell 1.6 percent to 4.27 million existing homes available for sale, the NAR reported, which represents a 9.9-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 10.6-month supply in August. The drop marks two consecutive monthly declines since inventories peaked in July.

While mortgage loans are still hard to get, people are still getting loans especially since homes are now more affordable. "The credit markets are not settled yet, although the mortgage market stabilized with the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Inventory remains high, and price declines are pressuring owners," said Yun.

The NAR is now actively pushing for additional stimulus in the form of higher tax credits for home buyers as well as a removal of the repayment feature tied to the original first-time buyer tax credit passed by Congress earlier this year.

"Additional housing stimulus would stabilize prices more quickly, which in turn would bring faster stability to Wall Street. Removing the repayment feature on the first-time buyer tax credit and permanently raising loan limits would bring more buyers into the market and further reduce inventory," says Yun.

Existing-home sales, which include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, are based on transaction closings. This differs from the U.S. Census Bureau's series on new single-family home sales, which are based on contracts or the acceptance of a deposit. Existing home sales generally account for 85 percent of total home sales and more than 40 percent of multiple listing service data each month.

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