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New-home sales rise as Americans freed from lockdowns go house-hunting

Demand is being boosted by mortgage rates near record lows, says NAHB's chief economist

New-home sales rose in April as Americans went on a buying spree as soon as state lockdowns were lifted.

Builders sold 623,000 houses at an annualized and seasonally adjusted pace, a gain of 0.6% from the revised March rate of 619,000, the Commerce Department said Tuesday in a report that records signed contracts as sales. Economists had expected sales would drop for a third consecutive month in April because of the economic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was among the group expecting to see a decline in sales, but instead we’re seeing the stabilization of the housing market in April,” said Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. “March may have been the low point.”

New-home sales are being boosted by mortgage rates near the lowest levels ever recorded, said Dietz. It’s helping to overcome “headwinds” such as a spike in the jobless rate and a tightening in requirements to get a mortgage, he said.

“Housing demand is responding to the low interest rates,” Dietz said. “There’s a pent-up demand as states begin to reopen, and it’s showing us that housing really is going to be a sector that helps to lead the economy into recovery mode.”

Three of four U.S. regions posted gains in April, compared to March, led by an 8.7% increase in the Northeast and gains of 2.4% in the South and Midwest. The West region that includes California, the nation’s most populous state, dropped 6.3%, the report said.

The average U.S. rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 3.24% last week, within one basis point of an all-time low set two weeks earlier, according to Freddie Mac.

The Federal Reserve began buying mortgage-backed securities in mid-March to keep credit flowing amid the economic jolt caused by the pandemic, which boosted competition for the bonds and put downward pressure on rates.

The average 30-year fixed rate probably will continue dropping through the rest of 2020, Fannie Mae said in a forecast earlier this month. It likely will average 3.2% in the current quarter, 3.1% in the third quarter, and 3% in the final three months of the year, Fannie Mae said.

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