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July new U.S. home sales up 9.6 percent

WASHINGTON — Sales of new homes surged 9.6 percent in July, another sign the housing market is climbing back from the historic bottom it reached early this year. The monthly increase was greater than expected and the fourth in a row and it was spurred by a decrease in the price of homes.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that sales rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 433,000 from an upwardly revised June rate of 395,000. Sales are now up more than 30 percent from the bottom in January.

The median sales price of $210,100, however, was down slightly from $210,400 in June and was off 11.5 percent from year-ago levels. Prices are still up from March's low of $205,100.

Last month's sales pace was the strongest since September and exceeded the forecasts of economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters, who expected a pace of 390,000 units.

Month-by-month statistics are not available for Tampa Bay, but local builders sold 1,100 homes during second quarter ending June 30, 38.9 percent below the 1,801 closings in the second quarter of 2008. Closings are 72 percent below the market peak of four years ago. Most new homes selling today are priced under $200,000.

Tampa area housing analyst Tony Polito expects home sales to stagnate or contract through the end of the year, weakened by foreclosures and tougher mortgage lending standards.

In an effect similar to the government's "Cash for Clunkers" program to stimulate auto sales, homebuyers are rushing to take advantage of a federal tax credit that covers 10 percent of the home price, or up to $8,000, for first-time owners. Home sales must be completed by the end of November for buyers to qualify.

Builders and real estate agents are pressing Congress for that credit to be extended. If it isn't, sales could reverse their upward trend. But still, the economy is healthier now, so sales are unlikely to fall back to the lows of last winter, even if the credit is discontinued, said Wells Fargo economist Adam York,

"People don't have the sense of panic and dread," about their futures, he said.

As sales rise, that's likely to make builders more confident about getting going on new projects, and that's likely to eventually lead to more jobs in the construction industry, which has been hurt badly by the recession.

"These are crucial elements of a sustainable recovery," David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities, wrote in a research note.

Each new home built creates, on average, the equivalent of three jobs lasting one year and generates about $90,000 in taxes paid to local and federal authorities, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

There were 271,000 new homes for sale at the end of July, down more than 3 percent from May. At the current sales pace, that represents 7.5 months of supply — the lowest since April 2007. The decline means builders have scaled back construction to the point where supply and demand are coming into balance.

Times staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report.

July new U.S. home sales up 9.6 percent 08/26/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 26, 2009 6:01pm]
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