WASHINGTON -- U.S. home prices fell for a third straight month in nearly all cities tracked by a major index. The declines show that most homeowners are not reaping the benefits from some signs of an improving housing market.
Prices dropped in November from October in 19 of the 20 cities tracked, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home-price index released Tuesday.
The biggest declines were in Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit. Phoenix was the only city to show an increase.
The decline partly reflects the typical fall slowdown after the peak buying season.
Still, prices declined in 18 of the 20 cities in November compared to the same month in 2010. Only Washington and Detroit posted year-over-year increases. Prices in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle and Tampa fell to their lowest points since the housing crisis began. And prices have fallen 33 percent nationwide since the housing bust, to 2003 levels.
"The trend is down and there are few, if any, signs in the numbers that a turning point is close at hand," said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the S&P's index committee.
The Case-Shiller index covers half of all U.S. homes. It measures prices compared with those in January 2000 and creates a three-month moving average. The November data are the latest available.
Home values remain depressed despite some hopeful signs at the end of last year.
Sales of previously occupied homes rose in the last three months. Homebuilders are more optimistic after seeing more people express interest in buying this year. And home construction picked up in the final quarter of last year, which helped housing contribute to broader economic growth.
Home prices tend to follow sales, which are still below healthy levels. And a large number of vacant homes are sitting idle on the market, which means prices will likely stay unchanged for several years, said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.
"The most likely scenario in the U.S. is that in 2012 prices will bob around a bit, with one month's gain being reversed the next month," Dales said. "But in general, over the next couple of years, house prices will do nothing more than remain broadly stable." Dales said prices might not rise consistently until 2015.
Economists say home prices are likely begin rising first in hard-hit cities in Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada.
Conditions are also improving for those in position to buy a home. Job growth is up, prices are down, mortgage rates are at record lows and rental prices have risen sharply since the housing bust.
Still, many people can't afford to buy or are unable to qualify for mortgage. Some people in position to buy are holding off, worried that prices could fall even further.
A full housing recovery could take years, economists say.
Many economists say the U.S. could be experiencing what similarly occurred in Britain in the 1990s, when it took four years for home prices to rise again after falling prices left homeowners with little financial equity in their homes.
Prices could also fall further once banks resume millions of foreclosures. They have been delayed because of a government investigation into mortgage lending practices that has dragged on for more than a year. Foreclosures and short sales -- when a lender accepts less for a home than what is owed on a mortgage -- are selling at an average discount of 20 percent.
A deeper recession in Europe could also cause U.S. banks to tighten their lending standards, causing home sales and prices to drop.