Home Sales Dip, But First-Timers Return to Market

Existing-home sales have been fluctuating in recent months, but one clear trend is emerging: First-time home buyers are making a move into the housing market as low mortgage rates prove to be an enticing incentive.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of REALTORS®, says he’s encouraged by the upturn in first-time home buyers in NAR’s latest existing-home sales report. First-timers comprised 32% of sales last month, up from 29% a year ago, according to NAR. “It’s good to see first-time buyers slowly stepping into the market,” Yun says. “The rise in the homeownership rate among younger adults under 35 and minority households means an increasing number of Americans can build wealth by owning real estate. Still, in order to further expand opportunities, significantly more inventory and home construction are needed at the affordable price points.”

The national homeownership rate has been rising strongly among people younger than 35, increasing from 35.4% in early 2019 to 37.6% in late 2019, Yun adds. Across age groups, existing-home sales are off to a “strong start” at 5.46 million for 2020, Yun says. “The trend line for housing starts is increasing and showing steady improvement, which should ultimately lead to more home sales.”

However, overall sales in January dipped month over month due mostly to the Western region of the country. Overall, existing-home sales—which include completed transactions for single-family homes, townhomes, condos, and co-ops—fell 1.3% compared to December. Still, home sales are up annually for the second consecutive month, with the latest numbers showing a 9.6% gain year over year in January, NAR’s housing report shows.

Here’s a closer look at key indicators from NAR’s latest housing report:

  • Home prices: The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $266,300, up 6.8% from a year ago. Prices rose in every region last month. “Mortgage rates have helped with affordability, but it is supply conditions that are driving price growth,” Yun says.
  • Inventories: The total housing inventory at the end of January was 1.42 million units, down 10.7% from a year ago. Housing inventories are at the lowest levels for January since 1999. Unsold inventory is at a 3.1-month supply at the current sales pace.
  • Days on the market: Forty-two percent of homes sold in January were on the market for less than a month. Properties stayed on the market for a median of 43 days in January, down from 49 days a year ago.
  • All-cash sales: All-cash sales accounted for 21% of transactions in January, down from 23% a year ago. Individual investors and second-home buyers account for the largest bulk of cash sales. They purchased 17% of homes in January, up slightly from 16% a year ago.
  • Distressed sales: Foreclosures and short sales comprised just 2% of sales in January, down from a year ago.

Regional Sales Snapshot

  • Midwest: sales rose 2.4% in the region, reaching an annual rate of 1.29 million, up 8.4% from a year ago. Median price: $200,000, up 5.4% from January 2019
  • South: sales increased 0.4% to an annual rate of 2.38 million in January, up 11.7% from a year ago. Median price: $229,000—a 6.3% increase from a year ago
  • West: sales decreased 9.4% in January to an annual rate of 10.6 million, still an 8.2% increase compared to a year ago. Median price: $393,800, up 5.2% from a year ago
  • Northeast: sales saw no major movement in January compared to December, remaining at an annual rate of 730,000. That is up, however, 7.4% from a year ago. Median price: $312,100—up 11.5% from a year ago

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