J.W. ELPHINSTONEPulte Homes Inc. lost $361.4 million in the third quarter, but with the acquisition of Centex Corp., the homebuilder's new orders increased by more than a third. Pulte completed its purchase of Centex in August, turning the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based company into the nation's largest builder. The deal gave Pulte more communities with cheaply priced homes for first-time buyers, as well as desirable land in Texas and the Carolinas. By combining their operations, Pulte now expects to save $440 million annually ¿ $90 million more than when the deal was announced last spring. "The rationale (behind the merger) has only grown more compelling in the months since the announcement," said Richard Dugas, Pulte's president, chairman and CEO. Dugas, however, cautioned the market remains "choppy and fragile." Sales also softened in September as families are less likely to move during fall and winter, and because a temporary tax credit for first-time buyers is set to expire this month. Congress is considering extending the credit of up to $8,000 through March, and gradually phasing it out over the rest of next year. One proposed bill in the Senate would give homebuyers until the end of April to sign contracts and still qualify. The bill would also give a $6,500 tax credit for buyers who have owned their home for at least five of the past eight years.