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Home sales and jobless numbers lose momentum

WASHINGTON — Momentum in U.S. hiring and home sales appears to be slowing, according to fresh data. The average number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits over the past month is at a three-month high. Also, fewer Americans — and fewer Floridians — bought previously owned homes in March after mild weather boosted sales in the previous two months. A possible weakening in two critical elements of the U.S. economy suggests growth could stay modest this year. "We are in for a few more quarters of moderate growth before stronger gains might appear," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. More hiring is needed to drive up wages and salaries and fuel the recovery, he added. Here is a summary of Thursday's reports.

The Labor Department said weekly unemployment applications dipped last week by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000. But that was only after the department revised up the previous week's data to show 8,000 more people applied for benefits than first estimated. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose last week by 5,500, to 374,750. That's the highest level in three months, although it is still 9 percent lower than the level from September.

Florida home prices rose last month, but sales dropped. The median price of a single-family home climbed to $139,000, a 10.3 percent bump from March 2011. The median price on a condo rose 20.8 percent to $105,000, according to Florida Realtors data released Thursday. Realtors recorded 18,730 sales last month, a 5.7 percent drop from last March. Condo sales fell 12.4 percent to 10,012. While prices jumped, the inventory of single-family homes on the market fell 35 percent to 111,461. The condo supply fell 39 percent to 59,284. Both categories are at or below a six-month supply, a figure that experts consider a healthy market.

The Tampa Bay market mirrored the state. In Pinellas, Hillsborough and parts of Pasco and Hernando counties, the median price of single-family homes rose 7 percent to $122,900 in March, up from $115,000 in March 2011. Sales fell 6 percent from 2,756 to 2,616 in the same period. The bay area has less than a five-month supply of single-family homes on the market.

Nationally, Americans bought fewer previously owned homes in March. The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that home sales fell 2.6 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.48 million. That followed a revised 4.6 million sold in February. A mild winter may have encouraged more people to buy earlier, essentially stealing sales from March. And the median sales price of homes rose for the second straight month in March, to $163,800.

A measure of future U.S. economic activity rose in March for the sixth straight month, a sign that the economy is gaining momentum. The Conference Board says its index of leading economic indicators rose 0.3 percent in March, after a 0.7 percent increase in the previous month. The index is designed to anticipate economic conditions three to six months out. Most of the data had been previously released in separate reports. Seven of the 10 indicators covered by the index increased last month.

Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.

Home sales and jobless numbers lose momentum 04/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 19, 2012 10:34pm]

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