Sales of new homes at 10-month low as mortgage rates jump

Contractors work during the construction of residential housing in the Norton Commons subdivision in Louisville, Kentucky, on Nov. 16.  Bloomberg photo by Luke Sharrett.

Purchases of new U.S. homes fell in December to a 10-month low, suggesting the post-election jump in mortgage rates pushed out potential buyers.

Single-family house sales dropped 10.4 percent, the most in almost two years, to a 536,000 annualized pace, Commerce Department data showed Thursday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey was for 588,000.

The figures indicate that the increase in mortgage rates curbed momentum in the housing market after steady job gains and historically low borrowing costs helped push full-year sales to the highest since 2007. Stricter lending standards also remain a hurdle for buyers this year.

The average interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage reached 4.32 percent at the end of December, the highest since April 2014, according to Freddie Mac figures. That was up from 3.54 percent just before the Nov. 8 election. It was 4.09 percent in the week ended Jan. 19.

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The supply of homes for sale increased to 5.8 months, the highest since September 2015, from 5 months in November. There were 259,000 new houses on the market at the end of December, the most since 2009.

Economists’ estimates for the December sales rate ranged from 550,000 to 625,000. The Commerce Department revised the November reading to a 598,000 pace from a previously estimated 592,000.

Optimism about President Donald Trump’s plans to spur economic growth through tax cuts and looser regulation triggered a rise in Treasury yields and a corresponding increase in mortgage rates. The Federal Reserve is also projected to raise its benchmark interest rate several times this year.

The Commerce Department said there was 90 percent confidence that the change in sales last month ranged from a 22.6 percent drop to a 1.8 percent increase, underscoring the volatility of the data.

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The drop in demand last month was led by a 41 percent drop in the Midwest and 12.6 percent decline in the South, the biggest region. Sales in the West fell 1.3 percent, while those in the Northeast jumped 48.4 percent.

The median sales price of a new house increased 7.9 percent from December 2015 to $322,500, Thursday’s report showed.

New-home sales, which account for about 10 percent of the residential market, are tabulated when contracts are signed. That makes them a timelier barometer than transactions on existing homes.

Sales of previously-owned homes declined in December while closing the strongest year since 2006, National Association of Realtors data showed Tuesday. Contract closings, which reflect signings made a month or two earlier, fell 2.8 percent to a 5.49 million annual rate, as inventory declined to the lowest since 1999.