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Lil Wayne Mocks Mitt Romney In New Song

Nicki Minaj got the headlines for saying she’d be “voting for Mitt Romney,” but another track on Lil Wayne’s Dedication 4 ridicules the GOP candidate, too. “Nigga call me Mitch Romney!”

By Michael Hastings

Nicki Minaj made headlines when she sort of endorsed Mitt Romney in a remix of the hit song “Mercy” on Lil Wayne’s new album Dedication 4, released earlier this month.

But another song on the album — called “Cashed Out” — also mocks Romney, taking shots at the GOP candidates strategy of stashing his money in off-shore bank accounts in Bermuda, the Caymans, and Switzerland, to name a few.

The song begins:

As another election year upon us. This last four years has been good to me. A couple of dollars in a couple different bank acccounts. Some here, some off shore. Nigga call me Mitch Romney!

In recent days, questions have been raised about whether the hip-hop community still supports Obama. The answer appears to be: yes.

President Obama with Jay-Z and Beyonce at a recent New York fundraiser.

Lil Wayne Mocks Mitt Romney In New Song

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US home sales jump to highest since May 2010

US sales of previously occupied homes jumped in August to the highest level in more than two years, adding momentum to the housing recovery.

Sales rose 7.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million, the National Association of Realtors said. That’s the most since May 2010, when sales were fueled by a federal home-buying tax credit.

The figures were reported the same day the government said US homebuilders broke ground on more new homes in August compared to July.

Still, the recovery is from a depressed level. Sales of previously occupied homes remain below the more than 5.5 million that economists consider consistent with a healthy market.

And the number of first-time homebuyers, who are critical to a housing rebound, slipped to 31 percent from 34 percent.

More Americans appear to be taking advantage of near-record low mortgage rates and prices that are, on average, much lower than they were six years ago.

Sales might be higher if more homes were available, the Realtors’ group said. The limited supply is helping to lift prices. There were 2.47 million homes available for sale in August. It would take just over six months to exhaust that supply at the current sales pace. That’s the typical pace in a healthy market.

The broader economy may also benefit from recent and more sustainable gains in home prices. When that happens, Americans typically feel wealthier and spend more. Consumer spending drives 70 percent of the economic growth.

Wednesday’s positive reports follow other signs that there is a sustained recovery in housing under way. Home prices are rising steadily nationwide. Sales of new homes are also picking up. And home builders are more confident and are breaking ground on more new homes.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index, released Tuesday, rose to the highest level in more than six years in September. Customer traffic and sales are at their highest levels since 2006, the peak of the housing bubble.

Even with the gains in home sales, the market remains weak. Many would-be buyers are having difficulty qualifying for loans or can’t afford the larger down payments being required by banks.

The Federal Reserve last week moved to push mortgage rates even lower. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said the bank would purchase $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities each month until the job market improves “substantially.” That could push down longer-term interest rates and spur more borrowing and spending.

The Fed also hopes that lower mortgage rates will accelerate the housing market recovery and boost home prices. That, in turn, could make people feel wealthier and more willing to spend, which would bolster economic growth.

US home sales jump to highest since May 2010  

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Housing improves in hard-hit swing states

By Tami Luhby @CNNMoney

Housing gains may not register with voters, especially in swing states, ahead of the election.

At long last, the housing market is improving in Nevada, Florida and other important swing states that were some of the hardest hit during the downturn.

But that probably won’t win President Obama a lot of points at the election polls, according to some experts.

On the national front, home pricesand home sales are up, whileforeclosures are down. The swing states are also seeing some positive results.

In Nevada, there were just over 14,000 foreclosure filings in the second quarter, less than half the amount the year before, according to RealtyTrac. Foreclosure sales are on the decline after a state law last year cracked down on loan servicers’ practices, while short sales are on the rise. Short sales are better for neighborhoods because the homes are often maintained better and command higher prices.

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The median price of a single family home in the Las Vegas area, by far the largest market in the state, has climbed 9% over the past year, according to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors.

And in Florida, foreclosures are creeping up again as banks recover from their paperwork fiasco, which forced them to greatly slow the number of delinquent homeowners they brought to court. But it’s still down by about a third from 2010 figures.

The typical single family home is selling for 7.8% more than it did a year ago, according to Florida Realtors. Median sales prices are the highest they’ve been since 2009.

Home prices are up thanks to a rebound in employment and in the stock market, said John Tuccillo, chief economist for the Realtors group. Investors, particularly from abroad, are once again realizing the Sunshine State is a good place to buy, he said.

In Ohio, prices rose 4.9%, according to the Ohio Association of Realtors. Foreclosures, however, are on the upswing.

Related: Obama’s economy: A snapshot

But rising home prices don’t mean there aren’t any dark clouds hovering over the swing states. The good news about housing doesn’t seem to be trickling down to voters, who still view their states as being stuck in a real estate slump with little improvement.

“The housing market is starting to recover in most areas of the country, but most consumers don’t realize it,” said John Burns, head of John Burns Real Estate Consulting. “The word hasn’t gotten out that home prices are appreciating again.”

One main concern that’s dampening homeowners’ enthusiasm is the number of homes that are underwater, or worth less than the mortgage. Nearly 31% of homeowners nationwide are in this predicament, a disproportionate number of them younger than 40, according to Zillow.

That problem is amplified in some of the swing states.

In the metro Las Vegas area, more than two-thirds of borrowers are underwater. More than half of Orlando borrowers owe more than their homes are worth, while in the Miami-Fort-Lauderdale market nearly 44% do. In Cleveland and Columbus, one-third are underwater.

Also, many would-be buyers are finding it tough to get approved for mortgages, while homeowners seeking to refinance to lower interest rates are also being stymied by bank bureaucracy.

“We’re significantly better off than we were two years ago, but there are still enough problems remaining for people to be concerned about their housing situation,” Tuccillo said.

Will it be enough to sway swing state voters?

For the most part, the presidential candidates are largely ignoring the housing market.

While Obama launched a series of efforts to try to fix housing since he first took office in 2009, they were mostly viewed as ineffective. Not many new ideas have been included in his 2012 campaign either.

His challenger, Mitt Romney, does not list any housing fixes in his economic proposal. And the Republican platform unveiled last week talks only of dismantling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and curtailing the Federal Housing Administration.

Ultimately, many voters will tie the recovery of the housing market to the recovery of the job market, Burns said. So they will pick the candidate they think can best boost the economy.

Housing improves in hard-hit swing states

Charlotte Prepares for an ‘Extraordinary Event,’ With All the Security That Entails

As the nation’s second-largest banking city, Charlotte has been the scene of several large protests.  Demonstrators marched during the Bank of America shareholders meeting in May.

By 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The variety of demonstrators planning to invade this Southern city for the Democratic National Convention is wide and deep.

When the party gathers on Sept. 4, both anarchists bent on bringing down government and radical evangelical groups bearing down on homosexuals and abortion doctors will be here.

In between, others will protest a range of issues that includes war, increases in college costs, immigration reform, labor practices, antigay laws, the nation’s policies on marijuana and the jailing of a soldier accused of leaking classified material.

There will be the “UndocuBus,” filled with illegal immigrants, and the Values Bus, sponsored by the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation.

Counting a Muslim day of prayer that begins before the convention starts and a conservative country music concert and rally that starts a day after President Obama is expected to accept the nomination on Sept. 6, the numbers of people showing up to protest in Charlotte will most likely be in the tens of thousands.

Even with 6,000 delegates and another 30,000 estimated associated visitors, it will not be the largest gathering ever in this city of 760,000, but it certainly promises to be the most difficult to manage.

“We have not seen anything like this, no,” said Carol Jennings, the city’s liaison to the convention. In true Southern fashion, she added, “We welcome all our visitors.”

But it won’t be all barbecue and bourbon. The city will spend $50 million in federal money on security, the same amount the Republicans gathering in Tampa, Fla., have received. It will be used to hire as many as 3,400 officers from outside departments, build about five miles of nine-foot fencing and pay for, among other things, steel barriers strong enough to stop a 15,000-pound vehicle traveling 30 miles per hour.

The city is also relying on a recent law that gives its manager the power to declare a large-scale gathering an “extraordinary event.” When that happens, a section of the city is marked off and the police have wide powers to search and possibly arrest people in that zone who carry items capable of hiding weapons or inflicting injury.

On the long list are backpacks, hammers, coolers, chains, glass bottles and water guns known as Super Soakers. Face-concealing scarves could also be tagged.

Since the law was put into place in January, the city has used it a handful of times, including the annual shareholders’ meetings for Duke Energy and Bank of America and for Speed Street, a May street party featuring Nascar drivers and food booths that in 2011 resulted in more than 100 arrests. The police said arrests were down by half this year.

On Wednesday, the city and the Secret Service announced the perimeters of the security zone, which covers about 60 percent of the city’s Uptown commercial district and dips south to cover the special areas the city has set aside for protesters.

The extraordinary events measure has rankled enough people that the city offered reassurances in a news release.

“For example,” it said, “residents will be able to walk their dog within the extraordinary event boundaries without fear of arrest.”

People were not appeased.

“We’ve never had anything of this caliber, and they didn’t know how to handle it so they over-handled it,” said Timeka Moore, 24, a waitress at a Mexican restaurant who has to travel through Uptown to get to her job.

Tampa has its own version of an event zone, and both cities have grappled with trying to prevent concealed weapons inside them despite state laws that allow people to carry permitted weapons. They have also set up special protest and parade areas, even providing a stage and microphones for demonstrators.

In both cities, people organizing protests have criticized the areas as being too far from the action, too restrictive and not particularly comfortable or conducive for expressing opinion to the people attending the convention, although city officials say the areas and the permitting process meet legal standards for such public expression developed after protests in other cities.

Not so, says Michael Zytkow of Occupy Charlotte. The security zone covers “every part of Uptown that anyone would normally walk through,” he said. And the area set aside for the so-called free speech zone is so remote “we’re calling it a parking lot tour,” he said.

Having free speech zones implies the rest of the city is not, critics say. Issuing permits for people to protest and using special event zones as a regular part of convention business concern some who believe such controls border on selective oppression of free speech.

“The biggest problem is the use of seemingly neutral laws to control protests to restrict certain kind of protests or keep inconvenient protests out of the public eye,” said Gabe Rottman, a policy adviser and legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “How they are going to use these laws is absolutely of concern.”

A similar law was used at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver. That convention, as well as the Republican convention in St. Paul, were marred by hundreds of arrests and violence and resulted in a series of lawsuits over the government’s attempts to investigate protest groups and its use of arrests to quell demonstrations and journalists covering them.

All of which party and city officials have on their minds.

“It has been a growing issue for folks every four years,” said Stephen Kerrigan, chief executive of the Democratic National Convention Committee, who also ran the event in Boston in 2004. “Our approach from the very beginning has been about increasing the engagement of people all across the board.”

Unlike Tampa, two major events in Charlotte — a kickoff festival and the final speech by President Obama at the Bank of America Stadium — will be open to the public, he said.

By many accounts, the crowds could be greater here than in Tampa, too.

For one thing, Charlotte will have a sitting president. And it is the second-largest banking city in the nation, home to both Bank of America and Wells Fargo — a designation that is driving at least 80 national groups, many from the Occupy movement and organized loosely as the Coalition to March on Wall Street South, to show up for a Sept. 2 protest.

Conversely, conservative Christians are planning a conference called Charlotte714, a reference to a biblical passage that promises God will forgive sins if people turn from their “wicked ways.” An estimated 40 churches will gather in the 20,000-seat Verizon Wireless Amphitheater the night before the convention for a church service.

That event is being organized by David and Jason Benham, twin sons of Flip Blenham, a well-known antigay and anti-abortion protester whom the city has battled in court over public assembly, noise and picketing regulations.

“In many ways, both Flip and the Occupy movement in Charlotte were really good preparation for the D.N.C.,” said Robert E. Hagemann, the city attorney. “Legally, I’m totally unconcerned. From a policy standpoint, we have to make sure we respect different perspectives.”

For some residents who plan to have nothing to do with the convention, however, the tightening of security has gone too far.

“It seems like they are going to turn it into a concentration camp around here,” said Malachi El-Bui, 56, who moved to Charlotte from New York City several years ago. “They act like we are the ones to arrest. They’re talking about we can’t have backpacks or they could arrest us? They’re tripping.”

Charlotte Prepares for an ‘Extraordinary Event,’ With All the Security That Entails

10 Cities Where Homes Cost Less Than A Car: 24/7 Wall St.

By 

24/7 Wall St.: For many Americans, homeownership is the epitome of living the American dream. Yet, in towns with high tumbling home prices and double-digit vacancy rates, median-priced homes now cost the equivalent of new American cars — except, as investments go, they’re slightly more risky.

Call it the dark side of the American dream – but if you can only afford to buy just one, which would you choose? In hard-hit cities, why own a home when you can rent one without the risk of foreclosure if your job falls through? Or, for about the same money, you can sport new wheels, facing only the risk of repossession — a lesser credit report complication than a foreclosure. While a car is unlikely to increase in value, its depreciation is both more manageable and predictable than a home.

“Buying a home in most places is risky,” says Jed Kolko, chief economist and head of analytics at real estate site Trulia. These high risks in towns such as Detroit, Michigan or Youngstown, Ohio have helped depress housing prices. And until the labor market improves there’s no real chance of a strong recovery in housing. “Towns with a history of job losses probably won’t see big price gains, especially if they have high vacancy rates, because it means buyers have a lot of homes to choose from,” says Kolko.

This quandary is especially meaningful to residents of Motor City, who have experienced deepening levels of housing hell in recent years. Much has been written about Detroit’s high misery index, and the challenges of thriving in a city with high unemployment, high crime rates, and city services under severe budgetary constraints. And yet, for those willing to take a long view of the city, Detroit also offers amazing bargains to residents dedicated to living in that community.

Despite its problems, even in Detroit, it’s not unusual for multiple buyers to vie for an appealing home in a nice neighborhood. The city has one of the highest rental vacancy rates in America and boasts a four-month supply of homes on the market, according to a recent report in the Detroit Free Press. A buyer’s market is typically six or more months’ supply.

Many residents of depressed cities in Michigan, Florida, Indiana and Ohio have been slammed by job losses and tumbling housing prices, too, and recovery is coming slowly if at all. Yet, on the positive side, these towns also offer a low cost of living by American standards that make for attractive buy-side opportunities for those willing to take a long view of homeownership.

24/7 Wall St. asked Trulia, a leading provider of real estate listings and market data, to identify and rank cities by the median prices of homes sold last year. Trulia limited the list to markets with an adequate supply of non-foreclosure, single-family homes, which ruled out markets that may have unusual spikes in median sales prices. To provide further context of how economic data can impact local housing market conditions we also gathered median-income data as well as Q1 2012 vacancy rates from the U.S. Census Bureau, unemployment numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and June 2012 foreclosure figures from RealtyTrac.

With home prices at 30-year lows and mortgages available at record low rates, some residents in troubled cities will be tempted to take the plunge and buy a home. Yet, amid this fledgling recovery there’s still the allure of plunking down a small deposit and buying a car that can take you to a city that offers a healthier housing market and stronger long-term job prospects.

10 Cities Where Homes Cost Less Than A Car: 24/7 Wall St.

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New home sales surge to 2-year high; prices rising

New home sales, prices rise

New sales of single-family homes soared to their highest point since April 2010, according to the government.

By Tiffany Hsu

New sales of single-family homes soared to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 369,000 in May, reaching their highest point since April 2010, according to the government.

Sales were 7.6% above April’s 343,000 rate and 19.8% above the 380,000 level reached in May 2011, according to the Commerce Department. The measure had dipped 1.1% last month from March.

The median sales price of new homes sold in May was $234,000, up nearly 2% from April and a 5.6% boost from last year.

Compared with last year, sales in all regions were up. From April, the Northeast enjoyed 36.7% more sales, but the Midwest slumped 10.6% while the West tumbled 3.5%.

The housing market has been squeezed by more demand than supply. Inventory of new homes for sale rose for the first time in more than a year to 145,000.

The new data add another layer to the ongoing debate over the status of the real estate recovery. Last week, research showed builders breaking ground on fewer homes in May but requesting the most permits in nearly four years. Home-builder confidence is still weak but home prices are turning around. Mortgage rates are at record lows.

RELATED:

Median home price in Southland climbs

Shortage of homes for sale creates fierce competition

Building permits at 4-year high, single-family housing starts up

 

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Home prices rise in most major US cities

By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER

Home prices rose in March from February in most major U.S. cities for the first time in seven months. The increase is the latest evidence of a slow recovery taking shape in the housing market.

The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index shows that prices rose in 12 of the 20 cities it tracks.

Three of the weakest markets showed signs of improvement. Prices rose in Tampa and Miami. They were unchanged in Las Vegas.

The biggest month-to-month increases occurred in Phoenix, Seattle and Dallas. Prices dropped the most in Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta.

Rising prices in most cities add to other encouraging signs of a housing rebound. Sales are up, mortgage rates are at historic lows, builders are more confident and the economy is adding jobs.

Still, even though 12 of 20 cities showed gains, the weaker cities weighed on Case-Shiller’s overall price index in March. The index edged down to its lowest level since the housing bubble burst.

At the same time, price declines have slowed, and a majority of markets are rising.

“This is relatively good news,” said David Blitzer, chairman of S&P’s index committee. “We just need to see it happen in more of the cities and for many months in a row.”

In part, the increases reflect the start of the spring selling season. The month-to-month prices aren’t adjusted for seasonal factors.

The S&P/Case-Shiller monthly index covers roughly half of U.S. homes. It measures prices compared with those in January 2000 and creates a three-month moving average. The March figures are the latest available.

Over the past 12 months, prices have dropped nationally. But the declines have slowed. The 20-city index was 2.6 percent lower in March than in the same month last year. That’s better than the 3.5 percent year-over-year drop in February. And it’s the smallest annual drop since December 2010

Other measures of home prices have also improved. But the S&P/Case-Shiller index uses a three-month moving average that could take longer to signal greater improvement.

“It might be the last of the closely followed home price figures to reflect a turning point,” said Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse.

In April, sales of both previously occupied homes and new homes rose near two-year highs. Builders are gaining more confidence in the market. They’re breaking ground on more homes and requesting more permits to build single-family homes later this year.

Long-term mortgage rates have never been lower. The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 3.78 percent last week, the lowest since long-term rates began in the 1950s.

The pace of home sales remains well below healthy levels. Economists say it could be years before the market is fully healed.

Many people are having difficulty qualifying for loans. Or they can’t afford larger down payments required by banks. Some would-be buyers are holding off because they fear prices could keep falling.

A better job market has made more people at least open to buying. Employers have added 1 million jobs in the past five months, though the gains slowed in April and March. The unemployment has dropped a full percentage point since August, from 9.1 percent to 8.1 percent in April.

Economists estimate that employers will have added 160,000 jobs this month. The government will issue the May jobs report on Friday.

Home prices rise in most major US cities

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Zillow: Phoenix has second-highest rate of underwater homeowners

 by Kristena Hansen

House life preserver under water

Slightly more than half of Phoenix-area homeowners with mortgages were underwater in the first quarter of 2012, generating roughly $39 billion in total negative equity, according to a report released Thursday from Zillow    Inc.

Many of those metro Phoenix homeowners aren’t so deeply underwater, the report said, with about 23 percent owing anywhere between 1 and 20 percent of the value of their homes.

However, a greater number were much worse off — about 27 percent owed double what their home is worth in the first quarter, the report said. Another 9 percent were at least 90 days delinquent, but the study emphasized that being underwater does not necessarily mean foreclosure is inevitable.

Among the 30 or so markets nationwide the Zillow study examined, Phoenix’s underwater home rate was second highest, although it fared better than the whopping 71 percent Las Vegas had that same quarter.

The overall underwater home rates in Arizona was 52.3 percent in the first quarter and 66.9 percent in Nevada. They were the top two sates in the country for the dubious honor.

Nationwide, nearly one third of mortgage holders, or 15.7 million, were underwater, according to the report. That brings the nation’s total negative equity to about $1.2 trillion in the first quarter, which is a miniscule improvement from the same period last year.

Zillow’s negative equity study puts somewhat of a damper on other reports that show Phoenix home values have continued on an upswing so far this year.

Most recently, the FNC Residential Price Index released figures on Wednesday that showed Valley home prices were 1.4 percent higher in March than the month prior. Nationally, the FNC reported month-over-month home values rose by an average of one-half percent.

“Negative equity remains an issue for the housing market as a whole, and poses a risk to any recovery,” said Stan Humphries,Zillow’s    chief economist. “Not only does negative equity tie many to their homes, by making homeowners unable to move when they may want to, but if economic growth slows and unemployment rises, more homeowners will be unable to make timely mortgage payments, increasing delinquency rates and eventually foreclosures.”

Zillow’s reports its data by comparing current values of individual owner-occupied homes with their outstanding loan amounts, which are provided by TransUnion.

Zillow: Phoenix has second-highest rate of underwater homeowners

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Sales of U.S. Existing Homes Rise as Market Stabilizes: Economy

Previously occupied homes represent 80 per cent of the overall home market.

By Shobhana Chandra

Sales of existing U.S. homes rose in April, driven by broad-based gains in demand that signal the market is stabilizing.

Purchases, tabulated when a contract closes, increased 3.4 percent to a 4.62 million annual rate, figures from the National Association of Realtors showed today in Washington. The median price jumped by the most in six years.

Owner-occupied properties are taking over from all-cash deals by investors snapping up distressed houses, the agent’s group said. Employment gains, depressed prices and record-low mortgage rates may bring more dwellings within reach of Americans, eliminating a source of weakness for the world’s largest economy just as risks from Europe’s debt crisis climb.

“We are making incremental progress,” said Millan Mulraine, a senior U.S. strategist at TD Securities Inc. in New York, who correctly forecast the sales pace. “People are becoming more confident about job prospects and about taking on mortgages. This is all positive for the economy.”

Stocks climbed after the report. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 0.5 percent to 1,322.63 at 12:04 p.m. in New York. The S&P Supercomposite Homebuilder index jumped 2.4 percent.

The April sales pace was in line with the 4.61 million median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey. Estimates of the 73 economists ranged from 4.47 million to 4.8 million. The prior month’s pace was revised to 4.47 million, from a previously reported 4.48 million. April’s total was just shy of the 4.63 million reached in January that was the highest in almost two years.

Europe and Asia

Elsewhere, U.K. consumer prices climbed 3 percent in April from a year earlier after a 3.5 percent gain in the 12 months ended in March, the Office for National Statistics said today in London. The rate is within the government’s boundaries for the first time since February 2010.

Japan’s foreign investments and assets, meantime, grew to the second-highest level on record as companies used the stronger yen to make acquisitions abroad.

The U.S. real estate market’s improvement has been slow to evolve. Existing-home sales climbed to 4.26 million last year from 4.19 million in 2010. Demand peaked at 7.1 million in 2005 during the housing boom. In 2008, sales totaled 4.11 million, the least since 1995. Resales may rise to a 4.6 million to 4.7 million range this year and reach as much as 4.8 million in 2013, the Realtors group projected this month.

“We are breaking out,” Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said in a news conference today as the figures were released. “With each passing month, there is job creation. Affordability has been very high. This is a very good combination.”

Median Price

The median price of an existing home climbed 10 percent to $177,400 from $161,100 in April 2011, today’s report showed. It was the biggest year-to-year gain since January 2006 and reflected a seasonal mix in demand toward bigger houses and fewer distressed sales, Yun said.

Families return to the market at this time before the start of a new school year, pushing up demand, he said. Cash transactions, distressed properties and investors accounted for a smaller share of all purchases last month, he said.

Purchases improved in all four regions, led by a 5.1 percent gain in the Northeast.

The number of previously owned homes on the market climbed 9.5 percent to 2.54 million. At the current sales pace, it would take 6.6 months to sell those houses compared with 6.2 months in March. April is usually the peak, or close to the peak, month for inventory for the year, Yun said.
Single-Family Homes

Sales of existing single-family homes increased 3 percent to an annual rate of 4.09 million, while those of multifamily properties, including condominiums and townhouses, rose 6 percent to a 530,000 pace.

The group’s affordability index, which is based on a combination of resale prices, household income and mortgage rates, reached a record high in the first quarter, a report this month showed.

Borrowing costs remain attractive. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to an all-time low of 3.79 percent in the week ended May 17, according to data from Freddie Mac going back to 1971. The average 15-year rate dropped to 3.04 percent, also a record low, the McLean, Virginia-based mortgage- finance company said.

Rising employment and incomes may provide more support for housing. The unemployment rate fell in April to a three-year low of 8.1 percent as employers added 115,000 jobs, according to Labor Department figures.

Pulte Orders

PulteGroup Inc., the largest U.S. homebuilder by revenue, said orders rose 15 percent to 4,991 homes in its first quarter, and backlogs increased 12 percent to 5,798 homes.

“It was the first quarter in several years that fundamental demand came in stronger than expected,” Richard Dugas, chief executive officer of the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based company, said during an April 26 conference call with analysts. “We are pleased with how the year has started off, including a continuation of better sales activity thus far in April.”

Foreclosure filings fell to a five-year low in April as lenders sought to avoid seizing property. The number of default, auction and seizure notices sent to homeowners totaled 188,780 last month, down 14 percent from a year earlier and 5 percent from March, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

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Pending Sales of U.S. Existing Homes Increased 4.1% in March

By Lorraine Woellert

Signed contracts to buy U.S. homes rose more than forecast in March as low interest ratesdrew buyers back into the market.

The index of pending home purchases rose 4.1 percent to 101.4, the highest level since April 2010, after a 0.4 percent gain in February that was revised from a previously estimated 0.5 percent drop, the National Association of Realtors reported today in Washington. The median forecast of 43 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News called for a 1 percent rise in the measure, which tracks contracts on previously owned homes.

An improved labor market and mortgage rates near historic lows are helping to stabilize housing. At the same time, the industry remains the economy’s weakest link, depressed by the threat of more foreclosures, stricter lending standards, and lower property values.

Pending Sales of U.S. Existing Homes Increased 4.1% in March

“Housing demand this year will continue to recover moderately,” Yelena Shulyatyeva, an economist at BNP Paribas SA in New York, said before the report. Even so, the glut of new foreclosures is likely to start pushing prices down in the second half of this year, she said.

Estimates for March pending sales ranged from a drop of 3.7 percent to an increase of 4 percent in the Bloomberg survey.

Stocks were little changed after the figure, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index falling less than 0.1 percent to 1,390.37 at 10:32 a.m. in New York. The S&P SupercompositeHomebuilders (S15HOME) Index climbed 2.7 percent. PulteGroup Inc. rallied 6.9 percent after the homebuilder’s loss was less than forecast.

Leading Indicator

Pending home sales are considered a leading indicator of progress in real estate because they track contract signings. Purchases of existing homes are tabulated when a contract closes, typically a month or two later, and made up about 93 percent of the housing market last year.

Compared with a year earlier, March pending home sales climbed 10.8 percent after 14.9 percent surge in February.

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Two of four regions saw an increase in pending home sales from the prior month, led by an 8.7 percent jump in the West, today’s report showed, while the South posted a 5.9 percent gain.

Housing is showing uneven signs of progress. This week, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, reported a February increase in home prices, up 0.4 percent from a year earlier, the first annual gain since July 2007.

Home Prices

The S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values fell 3.5 percent for the year ended in February.

Sales of previously owned houses in March fell for the third time in four months, from a 4.6 million annual rate to 4.48 million, the National Association of Realtors reported earlier this month.

Demand for new homes also dipped in March. Homes sold at a 328,000 annual rate, down from an upwardly revised 353,000 in February, which was the highest in almost two years, the Commerce Department reported.

To hold down borrowing costs, Federal Reserve policy makers say they will continue to swap $400 billion in short-term securities with long-term debt to lengthen the average maturity of the central bank’s holdings, a move dubbed Operation Twist.

Pending Home Sales Rise 4.1% in March

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‘Depressed’

“Despite some signs of improvement, the housing sector remains depressed,” Federal Reserve officials said in a policy statement yesterday.

Underlying the uneven housing numbers is an overall improvement in consumer confidence, said Farooq Kathwari, chief executive officer of Ethan Allen Interiors Inc. (ETH)

“I would go mad, crazy,” looking at housing data every day, Kathwari said in an April 24 earnings call. “So I don’t look at them every day because I’ve got to plan three, six months, a year from now,”

The home furnishings company, based in Danbury, Connecticut, reported an 8 percent year-over-year increase in net sales for the quarter ended March 31, to $175.9 million. “Three, four years back we decided to build a 240,000 square foot plant in Mexico. If we had not done it, we would not be able to deliver the products we have,” Kathwari said.

Pending Sales of U.S. Existing Homes Increased 4.1% in March

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