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U.S. home sales fell in March, in tepid start to spring homebuying season

Maneuvering the housing market slowdown
MoneyWatch: How to maneuver the housing market slowdown 03:47

The spring homebuying season in the U.S. is off to a tepid start as buyers contend with sharply higher mortgage rates and near historic-low inventory of properties on the market.

Existing U.S. home sales fell 2.4% last month from February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.44 million, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. That's below the 4.5 million home sales economists were expecting, according to FactSet.

Sales slumped 22% compared with March last year. The annual drop was steepest in markets across the Western part of the country, where sales sank more than 30% from a year ago.

The national median home price slipped 0.9% from March last year to $375,700, the NAR said. That's the biggest annual median home price drop since January 2012.

While the drop in prices is good news for buyers after years of soaring home values, a stubbornly low inventory of properties for sale continues to drive bidding wars in many markets, especially for the most affordable homes.

Some 28% of homes purchased last month sold for more than their list price, said Lawrence Yun, the NAR's chief economist.

"Home sales are trying to recover and are highly sensitive to changes in mortgage rates," Yun said. "Yet, at the same time, multiple offers on starter homes are quite common, implying more supply is needed to fully satisfy demand."

High prices and rates repel buyers

The U.S. housing market has been slow to regain its footing this year after posting its deepest slump in nearly a decade last year. Homebuyers continue to grapple with sharply higher mortgage rates, which can add hundreds of a dollars a month in costs, on top of home prices that have only come down slightly recently after soaring in recent years.

While more homes traditionally hit the market during the spring homebuying season, the number of properties for sale remains near historic lows at under 1 million, limiting options for would-be buyers.

Some 980,000 homes were on the market by the end of March, the NAR said. That's an increase of 1% from February and 5.4% from March last year. Even so, that amounts to a 2.6-month supply at the current sales pace. In a more balanced market between buyers and sellers, there is a 5- to 6-month supply.

The inventory of homes for sale has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Last month's inventory was down 41% from March 2019, when there were 1.7 million homes on the market.

The uptick in homes for sale in March reflects properties sitting on the market longer. The number of homes listed for sale for the first time in March was down 17% from a year earlier, Yun said.

High mortgage rates keep sellers locked in

Many homeowners who locked in a mortgage rate in 2020 and 2021, when they averaged below 3%, are reluctant to sell now that rates have doubled, which is limiting the inventory of homes for sale.

The average rate on a 30-year mortgage reached a two-decade high of 7.08% in the fall following a series of interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve. Higher rates can add hundreds of a dollars a month in costs for homebuyers, on top of already high home prices.

Rates eased in February then ticked higher in early March, reaching an average of 6.73% by the second week of the month. The average rate on a fixed-rate 30-year home loan rose to 6.39% this week, snapping a five-week slide, according to mortgage buyer Freddie Mac. The rate averaged 5.11% a year ago.

The combination of high borrowing costs and intense competition for the most affordable homes on the market is keeping many first-time buyers on the sidelines. They accounted for 28% of home sales in March, up from 27% in February but down from 30% in March last year, the NAR said.

"First-time buyers are still struggling," Yun said.

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