WASHINGTON - Americans ramped up purchases of new homes in October after three months of soft sales, evidence that the housing recovery is continuing, though fitfully.
Sales of new homes grew 25.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 444,000, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That was the largest monthly percentage increase since May 1980. But the increase came after sales had fallen 6.6 percent in September to a 354,000 annual rate, the weakest since April 2012. And sales in August and July were revised lower, August to 379,000 and July to 373,000.
Sales had slowed over the summer after mortgage rates rose sharply and a limited number of homes for sale boosted prices. The combination made home-buying less affordable. New-home sales have risen 21.6 percent for the 12 months ending in October. Still, the pace remains well below the 700,000 seen as consistent with a healthy market.
"The report suggests sharp weakening through September and then a rebound in October, but the volatility in the data argues against putting much emphasis on a single month," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics.
Prices for new homes eased in October. They fell 4.5 percent to $245,800 from September and have declined slightly over the last 12 months. The number of new homes available for sale was 183,000 in October. That's still relatively lean - at the August sales' pace it would almost take five months to exhaust the supply.
The Commerce Department delayed the release of the September sales figures because of the partial government shutdown in October. As a result, new-home sales for October and September were released Wednesday, in addition to revisions for the two previous months.
Mortgage rates are nearly a full percentage point higher than in the spring. Rates rose in May when the Federal Reserve first signaled that it might slow its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases. But rates have moderated after the Fed decided to keep its bond-buying intact. The latest average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.29 percent, still close to historic lows.
There are signs that builders are preparing for less growth. Approved permits to build single-family houses began to flatline in the spring, while spending on home construction spending fell 0.5 percent in October from September.
Though new homes represent only a fraction of the housing market, they have an outsize impact on the economy. Each home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in tax revenue, according to the National Association of Home Builders.