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Behind alarming numbers, a not-so-scary reality

You might have seen the scary news reports just before Thanksgiving: Housing prices fell nationwide last quarter, the first such decline since 1993. Even grimmer, total sales of houses and condominiums plunged by 12.7 percent across the country, compared with the same period the year before.

You might have wondered: Is this the long-predicted popping of the housing-boom bubble or the beginning of an extended period of eroding values in American home real estate? How bad could it get in the months ahead? And what might that mean for the equity I've got in the home I own?

Before considering those questions, it's important to focus precisely on the statistical data that drew all the sobering news coverage. The third-quarter median prices and sales numbers were generated from local, state and regional data collected by the National Association of Realtors. The association has been compiling these statistics since 1981 in the case of housing sales and since 1982 for prices.

Although the realty association might be viewed as having an ax to grind, its quarterly reports on median prices and sales generally are viewed as authoritative by economists and are cited by the federal government.

The quarterly pricing data, however, do not deal with housing values - the appreciation or depreciation rates for homes located in specific markets. A government agency, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, produces those numbers.

The NAR pricing statistics focus instead on the median price of existing homes sold during the previous quarter. The median is the midpoint, with as many home prices above as below. The latest pricing data showed that the median price of all single family homes resold in the United States during the third quarter was 1.2 percent below the median during the third quarter of 2005. The slippage year to year came to $2,700.

How bad is that? Not terrible, but it's still important: Median-price decreases have been unusual events in recent years. They signal that something negative is under way in the marketplace. But given the unprecedented run-ups in real estate prices during the boom years, plus near-record low mortgage rates fueling those fires, who is really shocked by a 1.2 percent decline?

Some prices went up

Something else that didn't get a lot of attention in the news reports: If you examine the 148 metropolitan markets covered by the NAR survey, you find that median prices in 102 of them actually increased, 45 declined, and one - high-cost San Jose, Calif. - remained flat. In other words, in 69 percent of the local markets where median prices changed year to year, the directional arrow was up, and in 30.6 percent the arrow pointed down.

Some of the median price jumps were surprisingly high: Seattle (up by 14.6 percent), Salt Lake City (19.2 percent), Beaumont, Texas (12.9 percent), and Portland, Ore.-Vancouver, Wash. (12.3 percent). Some of the most populous metropolitan markets saw net gains, including New York-northern New Jersey (up 3.6 percent), Chicago (1.7 percent), Los Angeles (5.2 percent), San Antonio, Texas (6.4 percent), San Francisco (3 percent) and Philadelphia (3.8 percent).

The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater market was up 9.6 percent.

Without question there were significant declines in major metropolitan markets as well: Sarasota (down 9.4 percent), Miami-Fort Lauderdale (5.6 percent), Boston (4.3 percent), Providence, R.I. (5.5 percent), metropolitan Washington (2.2 percent), San Diego (2.1 percent) and Detroit (10.5 percent). Those decreases suggest that prices continue to outstrip buyers' economic ability - or willingness - to pay.

Sales volume down

Now to the really important news that got lost in the latest statistics: The only real bust under way nationally - and in many local markets - is in sales volume, not prices or property values.

The quarterly numbers could hardly be more dramatic: Sales in Nevada plunged 38 percent; Arizona, 26 percent; Florida, 34.2 percent; California, 28.6 percent; and metropolitan Washington, by 15 percent. All of these areas were hot spots during the housing boom years, and all of them saw significant percentages of sales to investors. They were also leaders in loan programs that allowed buyers to acquire houses they couldn't afford if they had to pay traditional monthly costs.

But if home sales are down so dramatically, why aren't median prices down more than 1.2 percent? The answer is that in the absence of severe reversals in national or local economies, housing prices and values move glacially in retreat. Most home sellers in stable local economies aren't forced to sell if they don't get the price they want. They can postpone the sale until market conditions improve.

That's what you're seeing now: Sales volumes in the frothiest markets have tanked. But the statistical fact remains: Median prices in 70 percent of the nation's metropolitan areas are growing and are likely to continue to do so.

E-mail Kenneth Harney at