Home sales contracts in 7-month rally
Realtors' index rises 6.4% in August for 7th straight gain as tax credit deadline boosts activity.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Homebuyers signed more sales contracts in August than in any month this year, boosted by the looming expiration of a homebuyers' tax credit, according to an industry report released Thursday.
The August Pending Home Sales Index from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) surged 6.4%, the seventh straight month-over-month improvement in the indicator. The increase far exceeded economists' expectations -- a panel of analysts surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast a 1% rise.
Pending home sales rose 3.2% in July.
Pending sales are considered a forward indicator of housing market health since contract signings precede actual closings, which typically occur two to three months later. August contract signings show up in October and November NAR statistics as existing home sales.
Housing markets have gained some ground recently as a tax credit for first-time homebuyers -- which is scheduled to expire Nov. 30 -- stimulated sales of starter, and other, homes.
"No doubt many first-time buyers are rushing to beat the deadline for the $8,000 tax credit, which expires at the end of next month," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist.
One problem in extrapolating future closings from contract signings, however, is that there are continuing problems obtaining mortgages that may scuttle many deals, according to Yun.
"The rise in pending home sales shows buyers are returning to the market and signing contracts, but deals are not necessarily closing because of long delays related to short sales, and issues regarding complex new appraisal rules," he said.
Those issues also could also lead to some double counting of previous pending sales as buyers whose earlier deals fell through may return to the market and sign new contracts.
Still, the oversized gain in pending sales will surely translate into some increase in closings, and the report added to several other positive recent indicators that housing markets are at least stabilizing, if not in full-blown recovery.
Not all economic and housing indicators have been pointing up. Initial jobless claims climbed this week, according to a Labor Department report, after three weeks of declines.
Foreclosure filings are still well above normal and they threaten to go far higher as the terms of many toxic mortgages, such as interest-only loans and option ARMS, reset over the next six to 12 months and send the monthly mortgage payments of homeowners soaring.
Another housing market question mark is the status of the tax credit for first-time homebuyers, with the industry fearing that home sales could drop sharply if it's allowed to expire.
There are, however, several efforts in Congress to extend the credit and even to expand it to all homebuyers, not just first-timers. That could turbo-charge home sales if it goes through.