Real Estate

Record drop in pending home sales

Index that measures contracts being signed for existing home sales drops to lowest level since 9/11 attack.

By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- The meltdown in the mortgage market caused the biggest drop on record in July for pending home sales, taking the index down to the lowest level since the month that included the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

The National Association of Realtors' pending home sales index, which measures contracts to buy existing homes, fell 12.2 percent to a reading of 89.9.

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It is the second lowest reading on record for the seven-year-old index, trailing only the 89.8 reading in September 2001. Economists had been looking for only about a 2 percent decline in the latest reading.

"There's bad reports and then there are truly awful ones. This is clearly the latter," said Mike Larson, real estate analyst for independent research firm Weiss Research. "Even I'm shocked by a 12 percent decline."

But Realtors' spokesman Walter Molony said the large drop isn't a surprise, given that the problems in the mortgage markets seen in July and August were the biggest disruption to the home buying market since 9/11.

"It's difficult to fully account for mortgage disruptions in the index, and our members are telling us some sales contracts aren't closing because mortgage commitments have been falling through at the last moment," said Lawrence Yun, the Realtors' senior economist, in the index report.

The June reading in the index had shown an hopeful 5 percent jump to 102.4, but that was only up from a very weak May report that had been tied for the third weakest reading on record before this latest report.

And Jeoff Hall, the chief U.S. economist for Thomson Financial, said that the size of the drop in the July report may be partly due to the unexpected rise in the June reading, which he said now appears to be someone of a fluke and perhaps an statistical anomaly.

"We were in a discernable downturn before the June rise. If you look at the decline since May, it comes to about an average of a 3.9 percent monthly decline," Hall said. "I'm not going to say we've hit a bottom, but the magnitude of the decline is an outlier."

The months of July and August saw rising delinquencies and defaults cause problems in the sale of mortgage backed securities. In August Countrywide Financial (Charts, Fortune 500), the nation's leading mortgage lender, had to tighten its underwriting standards and drastically cut back many types of loans used by borrowers with less than top credit or those needing loans of greater than $417,000. Other lenders pulled out of the mortgage market altogether.

The Realtors' economist said the group was hopeful the shock to the real estate market seen in this latest report is short-term in nature.

"These temporary problems are primarily with jumbo loans, and there are continuing issues for subprime borrowers, but there are no serious problems for the majority of buyers who qualify for conventional financing or FHA-insured loans," Yun said. "Some consumer concerns remain, but since mid-August the market has been stabilizing somewhat."

Still the pending home sales report could actually be overstating the strength of sales, since it includes the potential buyer who signs a contract but then has to cancel it due to an inability to arrange financing.

And Larson said the fact that the mortgage market went from bad to worse from July to August suggests that the next pending home sales report could be worse still, and that there is problems ahead for other home sales measures, such as the even more closely watched existing home sales report.

"We have these issues with mortgage credit that started to hit in July, but they gathered steam into August," he said. "This housing downturn is not just a one-month event."

The pending home index is more forward looking than the group's existing home sales report, which measures home sales at the time a deal is closed, typically a month or two after a sales contract is signed.

The pending home sales index does not include any information on prices, but the sharp drop in sales activity suggests that price declines measured before August could get worse due to lack of buyers. Top of page