WASHINGTON Sales of new homes rose in April for the first time in six months although the unexpected increase still left activity near the lowest level in 17 years.
The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that sales of new homes rose 3.3 percent in April to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 526,000 units.
But the government revised March activity lower to show an even bigger drop of 11 percent to an annual rate of 509,000, which was the weakest pace for sales since April 1991. Economists believe that new home sales will remain weak for some time as the housing industry struggles with falling prices and rising mortgage foreclosures, which are dumping even more homes on an already glutted market.
The Commerce report showed that the median price of a new home sold in April rose to $246,100, up 1.5 percent from April 2007. Analysts were not impressed with the small price increase, noting that the numbers tend to be volatile.
Robert Kavcic, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, said that the price changes in the Commerce report do not take into account the various incentives major builders are offering to move their glut of unsold homes.
The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight said last week that home prices fell 3.1 percent in the first quarter compared with last year. But in Utah, home prices increased 5.58 percent in the first quarter 2008, compared with the same period last year. Wyoming saw the greatest year-over-year increase, at 6.34 percent.
A separate report Tuesday showed home prices falling during the first three months of this year at the sharpest rate in two decades. The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index fell 14.1 percent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, the biggest year-over-year decline since the index began in 1988.
The Commerce report on new home sales showed the April rebound was led by a huge 41.7 percent surge in sales in the Northeast. Sales were up 8.3 percent in the West and 5.8 percent in the Midwest. The only region that saw a decline in sales in April was the South, where sales fell by 2.4 percent.
The inventory of unsold new homes edged down slightly to 10.6 months' supply at the April sales pace, compared with 11.1 months in March. However, the April level was still about double the inventory level that was normal during the five-year housing boom.
That boom ended in 2005, and since that time the housing industry has been struggling in a tough environment with falling sales and prices and rising mortgage defaults.
Economists believe that home prices will remain under pressure until the sizable level of inventories is worked down to more manageable levels. Many analysts don't expect to see a rebound in prices until sometime next year.