Home Sales Rise in Hard-Hit Areas

The Wall Street Journal

May 27, 2008

Home sales are rising in some U.S. metropolitan areas where lenders have slashed prices on foreclosed properties.

Generally, home sales remain weak. The National Association of Realtors reported last week that sales of previously occupied homes in April were down about 18% from the already depressed year-earlier level.

But sales are up sharply in some of the areas hit hardest by foreclosures and falling prices. They include: Las Vegas; Sacramento, Calif.; Fort Myers, Fla.; and inner-city Detroit.

Though Americans remain wary of further drops in housing prices, the data from these areas show that some buyers are trolling for bargains. Sellers “have moved into the acceptance mode” and are pricing homes more realistically, says Thomas Lawler, a housing economist in Leesburg, Va. “I think it is the first stage of good news for the market.”

Lenders’ inventory of foreclosed homes has steadily increased in the past couple of years and is believed to total around half a million homes. Many lenders initially were slow to slash prices, partly because they hoped to avoid huge losses. But more lenders have been capitulating as it becomes clear that delays often merely result in lower proceeds and higher costs for taxes, insurance and upkeep.

That doesn’t mean housing is poised for a quick recovery. In much of the U.S., there is still a huge glut of homes for sale, and foreclosures continue to dump more property on the market. Realtors reported that the number of single-family homes on the market in April was enough to last 10.7 months at the current sales rate, the highest since 1985. During the housing boom of the first half of this decade, the supply typically was four to five months.

For the first four months of this year, home sales in Detroit, excluding suburbs, totaled 3,360, up 48% from a year earlier, according to the Michigan Association of Realtors. The average price dropped 56% to just $20,514. That average is so low because many of the sales involve decrepit homes in neighborhoods with few jobs.

Most of the recent sales in Detroit involve investors buying foreclosed homes, says Carl Williams, president of the local association of Realtors. The homes are selling, he says, because “the prices are dirt cheap.”

Sales of “normal” homes, those that haven’t been foreclosed, remain very slow, Mr. Williams says. Still, he sees it as a good sign that lenders are finding buyers for the foreclosed homes. To the extent that investors can renovate and find tenants for vacant houses, neighborhoods can start to heal.

In California’s Sacramento County, sales of single-family homes totaled 1,669 in April, up 41% from a year earlier, according to DataQuick Information Systems, a research firm. The median sales price was $226,250, down 34%.

Alan Wagner, president of the Sacramento Association of Realtors, says the rise reflects more aggressive pricing by lenders. “They’ve got to liquidate inventory. They’re taking that house and dropping $100,000 off the price, and all of a sudden they’ve got multiple offers,” he says. Some homes that sold for more than $400,000 a couple years ago now go for $225,000 to $260,000, Mr. Wagner says.

That means some renters previously priced out of the market finally can afford homes — if they can qualify for mortgages. That has become much tougher because lenders have tightened standards, but Mr. Wagner says the growing availability of U.S.-insured loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration is helping.

In the Las Vegas area, sales of single-family homes in April were up 30% from a year earlier. The Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors says properties being sold by lenders account for more than half of recent sales.