NEW YORK (TheStreet) - Home prices are expected to drop 1.6% in the fourth quarter of 2011, and fall another 3.2% in the first quarter of 2012, according to Clear Capital's home data index.

Current year-over-year home prices remain 3.8% lower, the report showed, though September did show gains, particularly in the Midwest region of the country where housing prices gained 7.2% last month.

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Even so, Clear Capital projected that national home prices at the end of the first quarter of 2012 will be comparable with those at the end of the first quarter of 2011, which were the lowest since the housing market downturn began.

"The housing market has yet to demonstrate the fundamentals necessary to overcome a seasonal slowdown over the next six months, which drives our projected 3.2% drop in national home prices through the first quarter of 2012," said Alex Villacorta, director of research and analytics at Clear Capital.

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"The normally positive market forces of record low mortgage rates and near record lows in home prices are being offset by high unemployment rates and general consumer pessimism about the economic future," Villacorta added. "Until we experience a more stable economic environment, I expect home prices to remain relatively flat or slightly down for the foreseeable future."

Despite some modest monthly gains, the upcoming fall and winter months are traditionally slow for the housing market, and if Clear Capital's projections are accurate, calendar 2011 will have seen a 1% decline in home prices overall, the firm's report said.

The threat of a "triple-dip" in home prices is plausible, Clear Capital said, if the economy falls back into a recession. U.S. home prices experienced the first dip in the winter of 2009, and the second in the winter of 2010, but "a dreaded 'triple-dip' is likely only to be flirted with, assuming there is not a major shock to the system in upcoming months," the report estimated.

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Clear Capital concluded that "record low mortgage rates and a wide selection of affordable homes has yet to counteract the negative pull of distressed sales and stubbornly high unemployment. The net effect of these counter forces places the housing market in a suspended state with price movement limited to a standard seasonal ebb and flow."

Falling home prices have done little to spur potential buyers. Data released late last month showed that

sales of newly built homes fell 2.3% in August to a six-month low

.

A report released earlier in September showed that homebuilders began construction on 5% fewer homes in August, a weaker-than-expected rate, though applications for building permits rose 3.2% to the highest rate this year pointing to the possibility for some sense of stabilization in the home construction market.

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Stocks in the homebuilder sector were mostly higher Thursday, though the

SPDR S&P Homebuilders

(XHB) - Get SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF Report

and

iShares Dow Jones US Home Construction,

(ITB) - Get iShares U.S. Home Construction ETF Report

exchange-traded funds that track the sector, remain around 70% and 80%, respectively, off their early 2006 peaks.

Among individual builders,

D.R. Horton

(DHI) - Get D.R. Horton, Inc. Report

added 1%,

Toll Brothers

(TOL) - Get Toll Brothers, Inc. Report

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gained 0.4%,

PulteGroup

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rose 2.8% and

Lennar

(LEN) - Get Lennar Corporation Class A Report

, largely considered a leader among the homebuilders, picked up 2.6%.

--

Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

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