Coming off best year since 2007, home sales slow

, Bloomberg

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Sales of previously owned U.S. homes probably eased in January, reflecting a pause in momentum for the industry coming off its best year since 2007, economists said before a report Thursday.

Purchases fell 0.8 of a percent to a 4.9 million annualized rate last month from December's 4.94 million, according to the median forecast of 79 economists surveyed by Bloomberg. Other data may show consumer prices were contained in January and a measure of the economic outlook for the next three to six months climbed.

A sustained pickup in housing will depend on faster progress in the labor market, fewer foreclosures and easier access to credit. Near record-low mortgage costs and the prospect of firming prices may induce buyers to return to the market at a time the available supply of homes is shrinking, posing a potential restraint on sales.

Existing-home sales, tabulated when a contract closes, have recovered since reaching a 13-year low of 4.11 million in 2008. The market peaked at a record 7.08 million in 2005. A total of 4.65 million previously owned houses were sold last year, the most since 2007 and up 9.2 percent from 2011. Resales accounted for about 93 percent of the residential market in 2012.

Company results indicate the improvement in residential real estate will continue. PulteGroup, Lennar and D.R. Horton, the top three U.S. home-builders by market value, said orders rose in the most recently reported quarter.

A report from the Commerce Department showed single-family home starts increased in January to the highest level since July 2008. Total housing starts dropped to an 890,000 pace, restrained by a drop in construction of multifamily dwellings.

Buying a property is more affordable for those who can get credit. The average fixed rate on a 30-year loan held at 3.53 percent in the week ended Feb. 14, down from 3.87 percent a year ago, according to McLean, Virginia-based Freddie Mac.

Delinquencies, while still a hurdle to the industry's rebound, continue to wane. Foreclosure filings fell 28 percent in January from a year earlier to the lowest level since April 2007, as a new California law slowed first-time defaults in the most-populous state, according to RealtyTrac, an Irvine, California-based data provider.

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