Americans stepped back from buying new homes in January, as purchases plunged sharply in western states where prices are typically higher. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that new-home sales fell 9.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 494,000. Most of the decline stemmed from a 32.1% drop in sales in the West. Sales also slipped in the Midwest, while edging up in the Northeast and South.
The pace of buying new homes last month slipped below last year’s sales total of 501,000, a possible sign of mounting price pressures despite low mortgage rates and job gains that have pushed the unemployment rate down to 4.9%. But new-home sales also tend to be a volatile government report with revisions and large swings on a monthly basis. The decrease complicates the outlook for residential real estate. Rising demand for existing homes had sparked hopes that builders will ramp up construction and sales of new homes will accelerate. The 14.5% increase in new-home sales last year fed into those expectations. But builders have increasingly focused on the more affluent slivers of the market, while the decline in sales listings of existing homes indicate that many Americans may have lost interest in upgrading to a new property.
A curious price gap appears to have opened up because of these trends. The median new-home sales price fell 4.5% from a year ago to $278,800, likely because of fewer purchases in the West. But the average price — which includes the extremes of the market — has climbed 2.7% from a year ago to $365,700, a difference of nearly $100,000 compared to the median. The increase in the average price has consistently stayed ahead of wage growth, which limits affordability. New-home sales still lag the historic 52-year average of 655,200. Subprime mortgages helped push up sales as high as 1.28 million in 2005, a peak that ultimately signaled a bubble that burst and pushed the economy into its worst downturn since the depression.
But demand for housing has recovered over the course of the 6 ½-year recovery from the recession. Sales of existing homes rose 0.4% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.47 million, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday. That increase comes on the heels of a strong 2015 when sales reached their highest level in nine years. Supply of homes has failed to increase in response to demand, causing the median sales price to rise 8.2 percent from a year ago to $213,800.