April 19 (Bloomberg) -- Sales of previously owned U.S. homes in March unexpectedly fell for the third time in the last four months, showing an uneven recovery in the housing market.
Purchases dropped 2.6% to a 4.48 million annual rate from 4.6 million in February, the National Association of Realtors reported today in Washington. The median forecast of economists in a Bloomberg News survey called for an increase to 4.61 million. In January, sales at a 4.63 million rate were the strongest since May 2010.
Residential real estate remains the economy’s soft spot, challenged by stricter lending standards, lower home values and the threat of more foreclosures. An improved labor market and mortgage rates near historic lows have yet to stoke bigger gains in demand.
The market is “constrained by mild income growth, and there’s still a lot of headwinds,” Sean Incremona, senior economist at 4Cast Inc. in New York, said before the report. People are still underwater on their mortgages, a lot of these foreclosures are still weighing on us.” Still, “affordability conditions are near their peak levels.”
Estimates of the 73 economists surveyed by Bloomberg ranged from 4.45 million to 4.75 million after a previously reported 4.590 million annual rate in February. Even with the March decline, sales averaged 4.57 million homes in the first quarter, the strongest since the second quarter of 2010.
Existing-home sales, tabulated when a contract closes, climbed to 4.26 million last year, from 4.19 million in 2010. Demand peaked at 7.1 million in 2005 during the housing boom. In 2008, sales totaled 4.1 million, the least since 1995.
Another report today showed more Americans than forecast filed for unemployment benefits last week, a sign improvement in labor-market conditions may be stalling. Jobless claims fell by 2,000 to 386,000 in the week ended April 14 from a revised 388,000 the prior period that was higher than initially estimated, according to the Labor Department.
The number of previously owned homes on the market fell to 2.37 million in March from 2.4 million the month before, today’s report showed. At the current sales pace, it would take 6.3 months to sell those houses, the same as in February.
The median price of a previously owned home rose 2.5% to $163,800 from $160,600 in March 2011. The increase reflected more sales of higher-priced properties, Lawrence Yun, the group’s chief economist, said at a press conference.