US home prices climb in October, helped by solid job market

AP News
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Posted: Dec 29, 2015 10:36 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Steady job growth, low mortgage rates and tight inventories helped fuel rising U.S. home prices in October.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index rose 5.5 percent in the 12 months ending in October, up from a 5.4 percent pace in September, according to a report released Tuesday.

Home values have climbed at a roughly 5 percent pace during much of 2015, as strong hiring has bolstered a real estate market still recovering from a housing bust that triggered a recession eight years ago. Home sales have increased this year as the 5 percent unemployment rate has strengthened confidence in the economy.

"The U.S. housing market as a whole made great progress in 2015, as the big and occasionally volatile bounce off the bottom we experienced from 2012 through 2014 gave way to a more stable and sustainable environment," said Svenja Gudell, chief economist at the real estate firm Zillow.

Rising demand, however, hasn't been met with an increase in sales listings, causing prices to rise much faster than inflation or wages this year. This could limit the number of first-time buyers coming into the market next year. Still, many buyers are also benefiting from 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages averaging less than 4 percent, making it cheaper to borrow for a home. Mortgage rates have historically been closer to 6 percent.

Borrowing costs are expected to rise shortly after the Federal Reserve this month raised a key short-term interest rate for the first time in nearly a decade. Yet the federal funds rate — what banks charge each other to lend overnight — remains low at 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent, such that mortgage rates are unlikely to return to their historic averages.

When the Fed previously hiked this rate from 1 percent to 5.25 percent through the middle of 2007, mortgage rates increased a mere 0.75 points.

"These data suggest that potential homebuyers need not fear runaway mortgage interest rates," said David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones.

But the gains have been uneven. San Francisco, Denver and Portland, Oregon led with reported increases of 10.9 percent over the past year. Prices in Chicago and Washington, District of Columbia rose less than 2 percent. The 20-city index remains 11.5 percent below its peak in July 2006, with metro areas such as Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis and Tampa still significantly below their pre-recession highs.

Sales of existing homes did slow in November, although that appears to largely reflect new mortgage disclosure rules rather than a decline in demand.

The National Association of Realtors said last week that sales of existing homes tumbled 10.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.76 million. Still, home sales are on track to rise roughly 5 percent for the entire year.

The limited supplies are pushing up prices as buyers are chasing a narrow inventory of properties. The number of listings on the market has dropped 1.9 percent from a year ago, according to the Realtors.

The Case-Shiller index covers roughly half of U.S. homes. The index measures prices compared with those in January 2000 and creates a three-month moving average. The October figures are the latest available.

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This story has been corrected to show that the home prices report was released on Tuesday, not Thursday.