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Pending home sales rebounding

Number of signed sales contracts continues bounce off record lows for third consecutive month.

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By Les Christie CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of home sales contracts signed in April continued to bounce back from record lows hit last winter, according to a widely watched industry report. This is the third consecutive month of gains.

The Pending Home Sales Index from the National Association of Realtors rose 6.7% in April after jumping 3.2% in March. That was far above the forecasts of experts surveyed by Briefing.com, who predicted a 0.5% increase. The index was 3.3% higher than 12 months earlier.

Pending home sales are a forward-looking indicator since many of the contracts don't result in completed deals for many weeks or months.

"Housing affordability conditions have been at historic highs, but now the $8,000 first-time buyer tax credit is beginning to impact the market," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist in a prepared statement. "Since first-time buyers must finalize their purchase by Nov. 30 to get the credit, we expect greater activity in the months ahead, and that should spark more sales by repeat buyers."

The credit allows many homebuyers who have not owned a home in the past three years to claim up to an $8,000 refund on their taxes. The result has been a flood of first-time homebuyers even into lukewarm markets like Indianapolis, according to Glenn Bill, an agent there for Century 21 Sheetz.

"Our first-time homebuyer market is exploding," he said. "That's one good thing to come out of the stimulus package."

Low prices

Also driving sales is falling home prices. The national median home price is down more than 30%, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. That has drawn many bargain-hunting homebuyers back into the market.

Mortgage rates in April were also very favorable, averaging well under 5% for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan. However, rates have risen recently.

All those factors have raised NAR's index of affordability to near record highs. It went up to 174.8 in April from an upwardly revised 171.9 in March, its second highest monthly reading ever. This index measures the relationship between home prices, mortgage interest rates and family income.

Regionally, the biggest improvement in home sales came in the Northeast, where they shot up 32.6%. Sales ramped up 9.8% in the Midwest, inched up 1.8% in the West and cooled 0.2% in the South.

Also boosting sales, according to NAR president Charles McMillan, a Coldwell Banker broker in Dallas, is that some states and non-profit agencies are helping first-time homebuyers come up with down payments.

"Some states are offering bridge loans that allow first-time buyers to use the tax credit for down payment and closing costs, but there are many other local government and nonprofit programs available to buyers, depending on location," he said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced last week an additional program that enables homebuyers to add the tax credit to their down payments on FHA mortgages at closing, which should also help to enhance affordability and give a push to home sales. To top of page

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