Sales of existing homes sag in January

Existing home sales hit nine-month low, but prices are up 6.2%.

Amid high prices and tight supply, sales of previously owned homes fell to their lowest rate in nine months in January as the housing market continued its erratic recovery.

Americans bought 4.82 million homes -- on a seasonally adjusted annual basis -- in the month, the fewest since April, according to figures out Monday from the National Assn. of Realtors. The data cover existing-home sales, which make up the vast majority of the U.S. housing market.

January is often a bumpy month for home sales, as it reflects deals reached during the holiday season. Also, weather is a factor in some parts of the country during the month.

A bigger concern, though, is supply: The pool of unsold homes on the market remains at a relatively tight 4.7 months of inventory.

That is pushing up prices for homes that are up for sale, with the nationwide median price up 6.2% year-over-year, to $199,600. That situation is pricing out many would-be buyers, despite low interest rates and an improving economy.

"Realtors are reporting that low rates are attracting potential buyers," said National Assn. of Realtors chief economist Lawrence Yun, "but the lack of new and affordable listings is leading some to delay decisions."

Market watchers are mixed on whether the higher prices will lead more people to list their homes this spring, or whether they will simply dampen demand. Another question is whether new mortgage insurance rules from the Federal Housing Administration, which took effect last month, will help bring more first-time buyers into the market.

Overall, the market continues to improve, just slowly, said Patrick Newport, an economist with IHS Global Insight.

"Existing home sales are taking a bumpy road toward recovery, but all is not lost," he wrote in a research note. "The overall picture is looking brighter than it did at this time last year."

Keep an eye on housing and real estate in Southern California. Follow me on Twitter at @bytimlogan

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