Sales of existing homes in the U.S. fell in January from a year earlier by the most in more than three years. Would-be buyers were stymied by rising prices and a shortage of homes for sale.
The National Assn. of Realtors said Wednesday that sales dropped 3.2% from December to January, the second straight monthly decline, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.38 million. That was the slowest sales pace since September.
Compared with 12 months earlier, sales dropped 4.8% — the steepest year-over-year decline since August 2014.
Meanwhile, the typical home price rose 5.8% in January from a year earlier, the Realtors group said.
A lack of available homes is holding back sales, even as Realtors report that more people are visiting open houses and demand is strong. The total supply of homes for sale slipped to 1.52 million, the fewest for any January since records began in 1999.
The low inventory levels are a legacy of a decade of boom and bust in U.S. housing. Many investors bought homes at low prices during the housing bust and are now renting them out rather than selling.
And the Realtors group said many homeowners are reluctant to sell at a time of rising interest rates because they would have to pay a higher rate on a new mortage, a phenomenon known as rate lock.
The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate reached 4.38% last week, the highest in nearly four years. Although that is still historically low, for many homeowners it is much higher than their current mortgage rate.
January's sales stem from contracts that were signed in November or December, so they don't reflect the sharp jump in mortgage rates since the beginning of the year. The average 30-year fixed rate was just below 4% in early January.
A sharp rise in the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has sent mortgage rates up. The 10-year yield has jumped about half a percentage point since the start of the year, to 2.9%. Investors have demanded higher yields on bonds as inflation worries have intensified. Wages rose in January from a year earlier by the most in eight years, spurring concerns that inflation pressures are building.
Those higher rates could weigh on sales in the spring, economists say. And, even as sales have slipped, home prices are rising, reaching $240,500 in January, Realtors group said.
"It will be an affordability conversation for many people," said Ruben Gonzalez, chief economist at real estate brokerage Keller Williams.
Even a half-point increase in mortgage rates can significantly raise housing costs. For a median-priced home with an average mortgage rate, it would increase mortgage payments by $564 a year, according to Zillow, a real estate data provider. That would add up to $17,000 over a 30-year mortgage.