By Chris Isidore@CNNMoneyJuly 30, 2013: 10:38 AM ET
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)
Home prices continued to gain steam in May according to a closely-watched reading, even as mortgage rates climbed.
The S&P/Case-Shiller home price index was up 12.2% compared to a year ago, slightly better than the 12.1% rise in April. It was the biggest year-over-year jump in prices since March 2006, near the peak of the housing bubble.
Prices in two cities - Dallas and Denver - hit record highs, topping even the peaks they reached during the housing bubble.
However, the national index, which measures prices in the 20 largest markets, is still 24.4% below the peak of June 2006.
Just a year ago, the index posted a 12-month decline in prices. Sellers had been struggling while their homes languished on the market for months, or even years. But prices have increased every month since June 2012, and each month the increase has been greater than the month before.
The gain in home prices has now made this a good time to sell a home. Many sellers are finding themselves in the midst of bidding wars, with buyers eager to make a purchase in a market with a tight supply of houses available for sale. House hunters are also eager to lock in a mortgage while rates are still low, at least by historic standards.
"Home prices continue to strengthen," says David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. All 20 markets measured in the index have higher prices than they did in April.The housing market's recovery has been an important factor in the nation's overall economic improvement.
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Many of the markets with the biggest year-over-year changes in prices are those that were hit hardest by housing's collapse. Prices in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Atlanta are all up more than 20% from a year ago. New York had the most modest rise with a 3.3% increase.
But the rapid price gains over the last year are at a level that no expert thinks can be sustained. Some have even suggested it was unhealthy for the market, raising the risk of a new housing bubble, at least in some regions. The rapid rise of housing prices in the middle of the decade eventually sparked the crisis in the financial markets and the Great Recession.
But Joseph LaVorgna, chief US economist for Deutsche Bank, said he believes prices still have room to increase further, even if their pace slows.
"Affordability remains near historic highs despite the recent rise in rates and home prices," he said. "And the increase in home prices should encourage banks to ease lending standards for mortgages, since the collateral for the underlying loan is appreciating in value."