New home sales hit a five-year high at an annualized rate of 468,000, and home prices have hit the lowest since August 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Home sales jumped 9.6% on a monthly basis in January from December’s revised pace of 427,000. Oddly, this data has a 17.9% margin of error, which is an enormous swing.
Since the January data have a large margin of error, it's noteworthy that on a three-month rolling average, sales rose just 1.2% in January.
January’s show of resiliency is in the face of home prices and mortgage rates that have trended higher over the past year. Economists had also expected unusually cold winter weather to hit recent sales of new homes.
The Census report is the first to break a series of reports that shows a stalling housing market.
With mortgage rates ticking up, some level of pent-up demand, and home prices still solid even as growth momentum fades, this could serve as a catalyst for prospective buyers. New construction permits, often an indicator for demand, are up from 12 months ago.
But on the negative side, new home construction cratered in January, and existing homes sales– the majority of all home sales – hit an 18-month low in January.
Boding the most ill – mortgage applications are at a 20-year low.
"Purchase applications were little changed on an unadjusted basis last week, but this is the time of a year we would expect a significant pickup in purchase activity, and we are not yet seeing it," said Mortgage Bankers Association's chief economist Mike Fratantoni.
The rise in sales has brought down supply relative to sales, to 4.7 months vs. December's 5.2 months. Lack of available homes has been limiting sales and now looks to further limit sales. The median sales price of new homes dropped 2.2% to $260,100 in January 2014, but was up 3.4% from January 2013.
A plus for sales has been recent price concessions as the median price is down 2.2% to $260,100. The year-on-year sales gain, which spent most of last year in the double digits, is now modest, at 3.4% and in line with the 2.2 year-on-year gain for sales.
While much of the poor performance in other measures has been chalked up to harsh winter weather in December and January, the NorthEast region saw new home sales of 33,000, up 73% from December. The South, which likewise was hit by winter storms, saw a 10.4% gain. The South is the largest region for new home sales. The West, which saw mild weather, saw a 11% gain.
"New home sale rose a whopping 9.6% in January, rising from 427k to a 468k unit pace at the start of the year. This is the highest level in more than five years, suggesting some underlying strength despite a slew of weaker-than-expected housing sector reports earlier in the month and amid surprisingly chilling winter weather," said Lindsey Piegza, chief economist for Sterne Agee.
Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia (TRLA), told HousingWire that that cold weather boosts online home searches, particularly for homes in warmer regions even as construction and sales activity decline.
“Because the weather had a slight negative impact on housing activity, flat month-over-month numbers for construction or sales would mean that other market forces were strong enough to offset the negative effect of bad weather,” Kolko said.