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After Dismal Year, Homebuilders See Hope in 2012
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Home Sales Sunnier as Spring Buying Season Approaches
The housing market is flashing signs of health ahead of the spring buying season.

Sales of previously occupied homes are at their highest level since May 2010. More first-time buyers are making purchases. And the supply of homes fell last month to its lowest point in nearly seven years, which could push home prices higher.

Sales have now risen nearly 13 percent over the past six months. While they are still well below the 6 million that economists equate with a healthy market, the gains have coincided with other changes in the market that suggest more sales are coming.

"The trend is clearly upward," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that re-sales increased 4.3 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.57 million.

Single-family home sales rose 3.8 percent. And the number of first-time buyers, who are critical to a housing recovery, increased slightly to make up 33 percent of all sales. That's still below 40 percent, which tends to signal a healthy market.

One concern is that the market is still saturated with homes at risk of foreclosure, which can lower home prices generally. Those increased to make up 35 percent of sales.

But the supply of homes on the market has plunged to 2.3 million, the lowest level since March 2005. At last month's sales pace, it would take more than six months to clear those homes, consistent with a healthy housing market. Fewer homes on the market could help boost prices over time.

Most economists said the January report was encouraging, especially when viewed with other recent positive housing data.

Mortgage rates have never been lower. Homebuilders are slightly more hopeful because more people are saying they might be open to buying this year -- and they responded in January to that interest by requesting more permits to construct single-family homes.

1. Chicago

Median List Price: $186,000
Total Listings: 53,009
Median Age of Inventory: 138 days

Home Price: $4.995 million
Beds/Baths: 6/6
Sq. Ft.: 12,000

Users of Realtor.com searched for homes in Chicago more than any other city in January. With a little over 53,000 homes for sale, the city has ample supply for house hunters.

Behind this luxury home's brick and limestone exterior, is a whopping 12,000 feet of space. The listing description claims the house offers just the right balance of public and private spaces.

"The rise in existing home sales in recent months adds to the indication from housing starts, building permits, and homebuilder sentiment that the sector has improved modestly since the middle of 2011," said John Ryding, an economist at RDQ economics.

Much of the optimism has come because hiring has picked up. More jobs are critical to a housing rebound. In January, employers added 243,000 net jobs -- the most in nine months -- and the unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, the lowest level in nearly three years.

Analysts caution that the damage from the housing bust is deep and the industry is years away from fully recovering. Since the bubble burst, sales have slumped under the weight of foreclosures, tighter credit and falling prices.

Many deals are also collapsing before they close. One-third of Realtors say that they've had at least one contract scuttled over the past four months. That's up from 18 percent in September.

Realtors say deals are collapsing for several reasons: Banks have declined mortgage applications. Home inspectors have found problems. Appraisals have come in lower than the bid. Or a buyer suffered a financial setback before the closing.

Sales rose across the country in January. They rose on a seasonal basis by nearly 9 percent in the West, 3.5 percent in the South, 3.4 percent in the Northeast and 1 percent in the Midwest.
  
Shopping for a Home in Winter
Secrets to a Successful Move
Saving the Best for Last
Renting to Own
New House or an Old One?
Make Them An Offer They Can't Refuse
Lifestyle Choices Affect Bottom Line
Inspecting Your Home Inspector
In Love With Two Houses?
How to Track Down Foreclosure Properties
Home-buying With Others
Five Keys to Successful Negotiation
Five Key Areas to Pay Attention to When Buying a Home
Finding a Good Home Inspector
Find the Perfect Neighborhood
Don't Overlook a Home's Potential
Do You Have Buyer's Paralysis?
Debt Reduction Not Required to Buy
Debating Between a Condo or a House
Contingencies Your Home Offer Should Include
Can You Afford to Buy a House?
Buying a Home With Loans from Family and Friends
Buyers, Get an Edge During The Busy Spring Season
Affordability Options for First-time Home Buyers
14 Things to Consider Before Buying a Home
12 Red Flags That Should Raise Concern
10 Summer Moving Tips
Experts Predict Annual Home Value Appreciation to Exceed 6 Percent in 2013
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