BY CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER
WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans shrugged off rising mortgage rates and bought existing homes in January at the fastest pace since 2007. That has set off bidding wars that have pushed up prices as the supply of available homes has dwindled to record lows.
Home sales rose 3.3 percent in January from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.69 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday.
Steady job gains, modest pay raises and rising consumer confidence are spurring healthy home buying even as borrowing costs have risen since last fall. Some potential buyers may be accelerating their home purchases to get ahead of any further increases in mortgage rates. With few homes available for sale, buyers are pressured to rapidly close a deal as they find a suitable property.
The typical house for sale was on the market for just 50 days last month, compared with 64 days a year ago. Strong demand is pushing up median home prices, which jumped 7.1 percent from a year earlier to $228,900.
Just 1.69 million homes were on the market nationwide in January, near the lowest level since records began in 1999. It would take just 3.6 months to deplete that supply at the current pace of sales, matching a record low reached in December. Supply is usually equal to about six months of sales in a balanced housing market.
The supply crunch will likely get worse during the upcoming spring buying season, economists say, as demand typically rises by more than supply during that time.
“Relative to the number of households, the number of homes for sale is well through prior historic lows,” said Ted Wieseman, an economist at Morgan Stanley. “The level of inventories could be a much bigger challenge moving into much higher sales in the spring and summer.”
That, combined with higher mortgage rates, could soon restrain sales.
“We are a bit less gloomy about housing than a couple of months ago but sales will not continue to rise at their recent pace,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.
The bulk of the stronger buying is occurring among higher-priced properties, the NAR said. Sales among homes and condominiums priced at $100,000 and below fell nearly 10 percent in January compared with a year earlier. They rose slightly in the $100,000 to $250,000 bracket and jumped by roughly 20 percent in homes priced at higher levels.
Last year, low mortgage rates helped offset rising home prices. Yet now both are rising.
Mortgage rates have climbed since the presidential election. Investors are anticipating that tax cuts, deregulation and infrastructure spending will accelerate growth and push up inflation. That has caused investors to cut back on their bond holdings, pushing up yields.
The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.15 percent last week, according to mortgage buyer Freddie Mac. While that has dipped since earlier this month, it is much higher than last year’s average rate of 3.65 percent.
By some measures, the housing market has fully recovered from the bust that began in 2006. Yet its newfound health is creating its own set of challenges.
In high-demand markets, mostly on the West Coast, homes are being purchased after less than a month on the market, according to real estate brokerage Redfin.
Denver was the fastest market last month, Redfin found, with purchase contracts signed just 23 days after listing for a typical home, far below the 43 days that was typical a year earlier. Seattle was the second fastest, with 26 days on the market, followed by Oakland, at 27 days.
The strength in sales should lift growth going forward, as new homeowners purchase furniture, buy appliances and spend more on landscaping and outdoor equipment. Home sales also tend to spur renovations, which helps to update aging properties and generates additional construction work for the broader economy.
AP Economics Writer Josh Boak contributed to this report.
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