Distressed Properties Claim 40% of Existing-Home Sales

Distressed homes – typically REOs and short sales – accounted for 40 percent of the existing homes sold in March, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported Wednesday.

The trade group notes that these properties generally sell at discounts in the vicinity of 20 percent. Their large market share served to dampen the median existing-home price. For all housing types, it came in at $159,600 last month, down 5.9 percent from March 2010.

Overall, sales of previously owned homes rose 3.7 percent last month as the spring buying season began to take hold. NAR described March’s reading as “continuing an uneven recovery,” following the 9.6 drop recorded in February.

Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, expects the improving sales pattern to continue.

“Existing-home sales have risen in six of the past eight months, so we’re clearly on a recovery path,” he said. “With rising jobs and excellent affordability conditions, we project moderate improvements into 2012, but not every month will show a gain – primarily because some buyers are finding it too difficult to obtain a mortgage.”

“For those fortunate enough to qualify for financing, monthly mortgage payments as a percent of income have been at record lows,” Yun added.

The March numbers put the annual sales rate at 5.10 million in March, up from a revised 4.92 million in February, but below the 5.44 million pace in March 2010.

NAR notes that sales were at elevated levels from March through June of 2010 in response to the federal homebuyer tax credit. Immediately following its expiration, existing-home sales bottomed last July, and been on a slow but fairly steady path ever since.

“Although home sales are coming back without a federal stimulus, sales would be notably stronger if mortgage lending would return to the normal, safe standards that were in place a decade ago – before the loose lending practices that created the unprecedented boom and bust cycle,” Yun said.

He says given that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) government-backed loan programs turned a modest profit over to Treasury last year, and have never required a taxpayer bailout, low down payment loans should continue to be made available for consumers who have demonstrated financial responsibility.

A parallel NAR practitioner survey shows first-time buyers purchased 33 percent of homes in March, compared with 34 percent in February. They were 44 percent in March 2010.

All-cash sales were at a record market share of 35 percent last month, up from 33 percent in February and 27 percent in March 2010.

Investors accounted for 22 percent of sales activity in March, up from 19 percent both the month before and a year earlier.

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