Home Prices Weaken, Sales Rise

Sales of newly built homes rise 23.6% in June to 330,000 from a revised record-low rate 267,000 units sold in May.
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(New-home sales item updated with further analyst commentary.)



) -- Sales of newly built homes rose 23.6% in June to a seasonally adjusted rate of 330,000, the Commerce Department said Monday. The figure came in ahead of expectations for a rate of 320,000 after a revised record-low rate of 267,000 units sold in May.

The better-than-expected data helped lift shares of certain homebuilders Monday. The

SPDR S&P Homebuilders

(XHB) - Get Report

, an exchange-traded fund that tracks the homebuilder sector, rose 2.2% in late-afternoon trading. Shares of


(NVR) - Get Report



(LEN) - Get Report

, among the XHB's top holdings, bid up 0.5% and 2.9%, respectively. Fellow builders

KB Home

(KBH) - Get Report


Toll Brothers

(TOL) - Get Report

were both up several points.

"There's no question that this is a weak number, but it seems to be more stable," said PNC Financial Services Group chief economist Stuart Hoffman. "The bottom line to all of this is that we need more jobs."

While any increase in the rate of home sales is seen as a good sign for the economy and housing market in general, the uptick in June home sales still represented the second-weakest month on record after May's depressed figures. It was also 76.3% lower than the 1.4 million-peak in July 2005, at the height of the housing bubble.

"It shows a little bit of a bounce back from historical lows following the removal of some of the tax incentives," said Commonfund senior economist Michael Strauss. "The impressive thing is that we could get at least some pick up in spending although it is still a very very low level."

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The still-struggling housing market saw sales ramp up in March and April as consumers rushed to take advantage of federal tax credits that offered as much as $8,000 for first-time home buyers. Those credits expired April 30, leading to a dramatic decline in demand for the month of May. Some of that weakening clearly spilled over into June but not as severely as in the prior month.

New home sales rose 46% in the Northeast, 33% in the South and 21% in the Midwest, while sales in the West declined by nearly 7%.

"One month doesn't make a trend, and the roadblocks to a healthy housing market are high -- the most important one being the still-high jobless rate," noted BMO Capital Markets economist Jennifer Lee. "But with borrowing costs at record lows, prices also remaining low, those with jobs who can afford a home may be enticed."

The government report estimated 210,000 new homes were on the market nationwide at the end of June, the lowest level of inventory in over 40 years. It would take 7.6 months to sell through that inventory at the current sales pace, down from 9.6 months in May. Six months of inventory is considered normal market conditions.

Strauss added that even if June's new home sales figure had jumped to 430,000 "it would still be a very weak number." Still, he posited, "as lower interest rates impact housing here maybe we'll see some further reduction in inventories which provide a little bit of support to the home builders."

Last week the National Association of Realtors said existing home sales

fell at a slower-than-expected 5.1% in June

to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.37 million units. Economists had expected the figure to come in at 5.18 million units, an 8.1% decline, compared with 5.66 million sales in May.

>>Homebuilding Winners: Lennar, KB Home

Despite the drop, existing home sales grew 9.8% year-over-year compared with sales of just 4.98 million homes in June of last year. The easing pace of month-over-month home sales was also attributed to the expiring tax credits.

The median price of new houses sold in June was $213,400, a decline of 0.6%, the Commerce Department said, while the median existing-home price was $183,700, according to data released last week.

"The supply of homes on the market is higher than we'd like to see," Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the NAR, said last week, "but home prices are still holding their ground because prices had already overcorrected in many local markets."

Earlier this month the National Association of Home Builders reported its monthly index of homebuilder sentiment touched a 15-month low to a reading of 14 in June, from 16 in May.

-- Reported by Miriam Marcus Reimer from New York.

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