23 January 2012
The Wall Street Journal
There were fewer homes listed for sale at the end of 2011 than in any of the previous four years, a positive sign for the housing sector.
But appearances can be deceiving, and it remains to be seen whether the drop is the beginning of a real recovery or if inventory is being held down by sellers waiting for prices to pick up and banks moving slowly on foreclosures.
The 1.89 million homes on the market at the end of December represented a 6% decline from November and a 22.3% decline from one year ago, according to data compiled by Realtor.com.
Low inventories are an important ingredient for any housing recovery because prices could firm up in markets that have worked through their inventory.
Still, some real-estate agents aren’t celebrating because there’s a large backlog of potential foreclosures that haven’t yet been taken back and listed by banks. The inventory declines are particularly pronounced in certain states where banks have sharply slowed down foreclosures to correct document-handling abuses.
Moreover, some sellers have pulled their homes off the market to wait for a turn in prices, and that “pent up” demand from sellers could keep inventories higher once prices do rise.
Inventories were down for the year in all but one of the 145 markets tracked by Realtor.com, with Springfield, Ill., posting the only year-over-year inventory gain. The largest declines were recorded in Miami (-49.7%), Phoenix (-49.1%), and Bakersfield, Calif. (-46.6%).
The Realtor.com figures include sale listings from more than 900 multiple-listing services across the country. They don’t cover all homes for sale, including those that are “for sale by owner” and newly constructed homes that aren’t always listed by the services.
Nationally, median prices were down by 1% from November but up 5% from one year ago. Asking prices rose by 32.5% in Miami last year, with big increases in other Florida markets that include Naples (21.7%), Fort Myers-Cape Coral (21.5%), and Punta Gorda (19.4%).
Median asking prices fell from year-earlier levels in Detroit (-11%), Chicago (-10%), Las Vegas (-7.6%) and Sacramento, Calif. (-7%).
Inventories traditionally decline in December as sales slow during the holiday season. Listings have declined by 11% in December over the past 29 years, according to research firm Zelman & Associates.