Home sales contracts soar in October

National Association of Realtors index spikes 32% as buyers take advantage of first-time homebuyer tax credit.

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By Les Christie, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Americans are inking a lot of deals to buy homes.

In October the National Association of Realtors recorded an unprecedented ninth consecutive month of increases in the number of signed contracts.

Although these are not closed sales, and some deals can fall through, signed contracts are a good indicator of where the housing market is headed.

Between September and October NAR's Pending Home Sales Index rose 3.7% to 114.1 from 110 in October. But the index is 31.8% higher than a year ago, when it was 86.6. That's the biggest year-over-year gain in the history of the index.

The PHSI is also at its highest level since March 2006, and the rise confounded expert expectations. A panel of industry analysts put together by Briefing.com had forecast a 1% drop in new contracts.

NAR's chief economist, Lawrence Yun, gives much of the credit for increased sales to the homebuyer's tax credit, which first-time homebuyers could claim to reduce their taxes by up to $8,000.

"The tax credit is helping unleash a pent-up demand from a large pool of financially qualified renters, much more than borrowing sales from the future," Yun said in a prepared statement.

The credit had been due to lapse on Dec. 1, so many October buyers may have acted to get in under the wire.

However, the credit has been extended through the middle of 2010 and expanded to include many move-up buyers. The housing industry hopes that will keep sales perking until the economy picks up and markets return to a more normal condition.

In a related story, the Census Bureau reported that private residential construction spending surged 3.9% during October.

Yun cautioned, however, that housing market indicators, such as pending sales, may weaken over the next few months.

"The expanded tax credit has only been available for the past three weeks, but the time between when buyers start looking at homes until they close on a sale can take anywhere from three to five months," he said.

"Given the lag time, we could see a temporary decline in closed existing home sales from December until early spring when we get another surge," he added. "But the weak job market remains a major concern and could slow the recovery process."

The good news is that number of homes on the market has declined, removing some of the bloat that has depressed prices. There is now a seven month supply of homes on the market at the current rate of sale. which is down from 10.2 months a year ago. Yun predicted that housing conditions could return to near normal and home prices firm up by mid-2010.

"That would mean broad wealth stabilization for the vast number of middle-class families," he said. To top of page

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