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November home sales leap

By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- After surging 10% in October, sales of existing homes jumped again in November, growing 7.4% compared with October to an annualized rate of 6.54 million units, according to the National Association of Realtors.

"This clearly is a rush of first-time buyers not wanting to miss out on the tax credit," said NAR's chief economist, Lawrence Yun.

November was originally going to be the last month in which sales to first-time homebuyers would qualify for a federal tax credit of up to $8,000. However, that deadline was extended through June.

In addition, the tax credit was expanded to cover people who already own a home. They can qualify for a $6,500 tax credit if purchase a new house before the end of June. That should encourage "trade-up" buyers.

The strength of sales in November surprised the industry. A panel of experts compiled by Briefing.com had forecast month-over-month sales growth of just 2.5% to 6.25 million from 6.1 million a month earlier.

The sales total was also a huge improvement over a year ago. Sales rose 45.7% over the paltry annualized rate of 4.49 million units during November 2008.

The contribution made by first-time buyers is evident in a separate survey NAR conducted of its members. They estimate that 51% of sales in November were by newcomers to the market, up a point from 50% in October. Normally, first timers account for about 40% of sales.

Also propelling sales higher were rock-bottom interest rates. The average for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan during the month was just 4.88%, down from 4.95% in October and 6.09% a year ago.

With rates that much lower, homebuyers can save more than $150 a month on a $200,000 mortgage.

The industry expects home sales to slacken December, partially because of the tax credit's originally scheduled demise. That caused some buyers to push up their closing, stealing sales from December.

However, sales will not fall off a cliff, though, according to Walter Molony, a NAR spokesman. "The psychology seems to be turning around," he said. "Potential buyers, who had been staying on the fence, now believe we're at or near the market bottom."

One X-factor, however, is the vast numbers of homes that may come to market over the next few months. There is a large "shadow inventory" -- homes owned by banks and mortgage companies -- that have not yet been put up for sale. It could be as many as 1.7 million units, according to First American CoreLogic.

In addition, another spate of foreclosures could be hitting the market as a number of option-ARM mortgages are set to default.

All that may drive prices down, according to Shari Olefson, author of "Foreclosure Nation: Mortgaging the American Dream." And the impact of these renewed price declines could again alter the market psychology.

"People think that prices have bottomed," she said. "I don't think they have. People will see price declines and that will discourage them from buying."

Mike Larson, a real estate analyst with Weiss Research has preached all through the bust that price declines are what will "fix" the housing crisis.

"We needed to see prices fall to make ownership competitive with renting again, and to restore the normal relationship of house prices to income," he said. "That has now happened and you're seeing buyers come out of the woodwork as a result."

Still, they will have to come out in large numbers to offset the inventory overhang in some of the worst markets, according to Olefson. In the Florida condo market, for example, there is a 35-to-40 month supply of units at the current rates of sale, she said.

Prices still almost certainly have further to fall. To top of page

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