Sales of new U.S. homes rose in August following July plunge

Timelier Gauge

New-home sales, tabulated when contracts are signed, are considered a timelier barometer than purchases of previously owned dwellings, which are calculated when a contract closes.

Newly constructed houses accounted for about 7% of the residential market in 2012, with resales accounting for the rest.

Sales of previously owned properties rose 1.7% in August to a 5.48 million annual rate, the most since February 2007, as buyers rushed to lock in interest rates that were starting to climb from near record-low levels, data from the National Association of Realtors showed last week. The number of existing houses on the market was 2.25 million at the end of August, the fewest for that month since 2002.

There are few signs the rise in mortgage rates will halt the housing rebound, according to homebuilder executives.

Builder’s View

Lennar Corp., the third-largest U.S. homebuilder by revenue, said its fiscal third-quarter earnings rose as the company sold more houses and raised prices. The housing recovery “is still very much intact,” said Stuart Miller, chief executive officer of the Miami-based builder.

“We’ve experienced a slowdown in our sales pace and traffic in our community, as the consumer has adjusted to the change in the interest rate environment,” Miller said yesterday on a conference call with analysts. “But it is our belief that this change is mild and temporary given the extremely low levels of housing inventory in the market.”

Red Bank, New Jersey-based Hovnanian Enterprises Inc. reported a profit for its fiscal third quarter as net contracts climbed 1.8% and the contract backlog, an indication of future sales, jumped 18%.

The company is confident any hesitancy from its customers caused by the jump in borrowing costs “will be a temporary bump in the road to housing recovery,” Chief Executive Officer Ara Hovnanian said on a Sept. 9 conference call with analysts.

Mortgage Rates

The rate on 30-year home loans averaged 4.50% in the week ended Sept. 19, close to the highest level since July 2011, according to data from McLean, Virginia-based Freddie Mac. The rate, which was as low as 3.81% at the end of May, began rising since Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke that month indicated the central bank may slow asset purchases.

The Fed last week maintained its $85 billion monthly pace of bond buying, saying it needs additional evidence of sustained improvement in the economy. “The tightening of financial conditions observed in recent months, if sustained, could slow the pace of improvement,” it said in a statement.

Builders began work on fewer homes than projected in August, Commerce Department figures showed earlier this month. Housing starts rose 0.9%, while permits, a proxy for future projects, dropped.

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