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Existing-home sales up 5.6% in November

Sales of previously owned homes rose 5.6 percent in November from October, but they remained 27.9 percent below 2009 levels, the National Association of Realtors reported Wednesday.

Sales of previously owned homes rose 5.6 percent in November from October, but they remained 27.9 percent below 2009 levels, the National Association of Realtors reported Wednesday.

Despite the year-over-year decline, the association's chief economist, Lawrence Yun, expressed hope for 2011, saying that "continuing gains in home sales are encouraging, and the positive impact of steady job creation will more than trump the negative impact from a modest rise in interest rates."

After falling to a record-low 4.17 percent in mid-November, 30-year fixed mortgage-interest rates have been rising. They averaged 4.83 percent last week, Freddie Mac reported, as market concerns over stronger economic growth that, in the near term, could lead to an increase in inflation sparked a rise in bond yields.

The national median price for all types of housing rose in November to $170,600, up 0.4 percent from the same month in 2009, the Realtors' group reported. (Median is the middle number; half the homes sold for more, half for less.)

Sales of distressed properties accounted for 33 percent of the month's sales, about the same percentage as in October and in November 2009.

In the eight-county Philadelphia region, November sales fell 46.3 percent from the same month a year ago, according to figures compiled by Prudential Fox & Roach's HomExpert Market Report. Many first-time buyers settled on houses in November 2009 fearing that the government would not renew a federal tax credit of up to $8,000 on their purchases.

As it turned out, the tax credit was extended and expanded that month. Since its April 30 expiration, sales of previously owned houses nationwide have plunged to levels not seen for almost 40 years.

In this region, only 2,790 houses closed during November, compared with 5,191 the same month last year, HomExpert reported. Even November 2008, less than two months after the financial meltdown, had more closings - 2,894.

November sales locally also were down from October's levels by 3.4 percent, or 98 homes.

Median prices rose in the region, however - up 1.5 percent, from $204,000 in November 2009 to $207,000 this year, HomExpert said. Five percent to 7 percent of area sales are distressed properties, according to real estate agents and analysts.

Currently, houses in the region average 96 days on the market before an agreement of sale - 12 days more than a year ago, HomExpert said. At the current sales pace, it would take 14.8 months to clear the market of the present inventory of 46,000 houses.

The Mortgage Bankers Association reported Wednesday a drop in refinance applications from the previous week as mortgage rates climbed to their highest levels in six months.

Mortgage purchase applications also fell for the second week and have remained at low levels over the last month, "indicating that home sales are likely to remain relatively weak over the next few months," said Michael Fratantoni, the association's vice president of research and economics.

Continued failure of the real estate market to extricate itself from the depths has created problems for home builders as well as real estate agents, with Hovnanian Inc. of Red Bank, N.J., reporting a 19 percent drop in fourth-quarter revenue from the same period in 2009.

Hovnanian's revenue fell to $353 million from $437.4 million as net contracts for homes dropped 13 percent, to 1,078, the company reported. Still, the builder was able to narrow the net loss for the quarter ended Oct. 31 to $132.1 million, or $1.68 a share, from $250.8 million, or $3.21, a year earlier.

On a more positive note, the American Institute of Architects reported Wednesday that its index measuring billings for work rose in November to its highest level since December 2007.

"Though this is heartening news, it would be premature to say the design and construction industry is out of the woods yet," said Kermit Baker, the group's chief economist. "Once we see several months in a row of increasing demand, we can feel safe saying we have entered a recovery phase."