According to the National Association of Realtors, U.S. existing-home sales snapped back solidly in December 2015, as more buyers reached the market before the end of the year, and the delayed closings resulting from the rollout of the Know Before You Owe initiative pushed a portion of November's would-be transactions into last month's figure. Led by the South and West, all four major regions saw large increases in December.
Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, ascended 14.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.46 million in December from 4.76 million in November. After last month's turnaround (the largest monthly increase ever recorded), sales are now 7.7 percent above a year ago.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says December's robust bounce back caps off the best year of existing sales (5.26 million) since 2006 (6.48 million). "While the carryover of November's delayed transactions into December contributed greatly to the sharp increase, the overall pace taken together indicates sales these last two months maintained the healthy level of activity seen in most of 2015," he said. "Additionally, the prospect of higher mortgage rates in coming months and warm November and December weather allowed more homes to close before the end of the year."
The median existing-home price for all housing types in December was $224,100, up 7.6 percent from December 2014 ($208,200). Last month's price increase marks the 46th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.
Total housing inventory at the end of December dropped 12.3 percent to 1.79 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 3.8 percent lower than a year ago (1.86 million). Unsold inventory is at a 3.9-month supply at the current sales pace, down from 5.1 months in November and the lowest since January 2005 (3.6 months).
"Although some growth is expected, the housing market will struggle in 2016 to replicate last year's 7 percent increase in sales," adds Yun. "In addition to insufficient supply levels, the overall pace of sales this year will be constricted by tepid economic expansion, rising mortgage rates and decreasing demand for buying in oil-producing metro areas."
The percent share of first-time buyers was at 32 percent in December (matching the highest share since August), up from 30 percent in November and 29 percent a year ago. First-time buyers in all of 2015 represented an average of 30 percent, up from 29 percent in both 2014 and 2013. A separate NAR survey released in late 2015 revealed that the annual share of first-time buyers was at its lowest level in nearly three decades.
"First-time buyers were for the most part held back once again in 2015 by rising rents and home prices, competition from vacation and investment buyers and supply shortages," says Yun. "While these headwinds show little signs of abating, the cumulative effect of strong job growth in recent years and young renters' overwhelming interest to own a home should lead to a modest uptick in first-time buyer activity in 2016."
All-cash sales were 24 percent of transactions in December (27 percent in November) and are down from 26 percent a year ago. Individual investors, who account for many cash sales, purchased 15 percent of homes in December, down from both from 16 percent in November and 17 percent a year ago. Sixty-four percent of investors paid cash in December.
According to Freddie Mac, the average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage stayed below 4 percent for the fifth consecutive month but increased in December to 3.96 from 3.94 percent in November. The average commitment rate for all of 2015 was 3.85 percent.
Properties typically stayed on the market for 58 days in December, an increase from 54 days in November but below the 66 days in December 2014. Short sales were on the market the longest at a median of 86 days in December, while foreclosures sold in 68 days and non-distressed homes took 57 days. Thirty-two percent of homes sold in December were on the market for less than a month.
"December's rebound in sales is reason for cautious optimism that the work to prepare for Know Before You Owe is paying off," says NAR President Tom Salomone, broker-owner of Real Estate II Inc. in Coral Springs, Florida. "However, our data is still showing longer closing timeframes, which is a reminder that the near-term challenges we anticipated are still prevalent. NAR advised members to extend the time horizon on their purchase contracts to address this concern, and we'll continue to work with our industry partners to ensure 2016 is a success for consumers, homeowners and Realtors alike."
Distressed sales - foreclosures and short sales - declined to 8 percent in December, down from 9 percent in November and 11 percent a year ago. Six percent of December sales were foreclosures and 2 percent were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 16 percent below market value in December (15 percent in November), while short sales were discounted 15 percent (unchanged from November).
Single-family and Condo/Co-op Sales
Single-family home sales jumped 16.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million in December from 4.15 million in November, and are now 7.1 percent higher than the 4.50 million pace a year ago. The median existing single-family home price was $226,000 in December, up 8.0 percent from December 2014.
Existing condominium and co-op sales increased 4.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 640,000 units in December from 610,000 in November, and are now 12.3 percent above December 2014 (570,000 units). The median existing condo price was $209,900 in December, which is 4.9 percent above a year ago.
December existing-home sales in the Northeast increased 8.7 percent to an annual rate of 750,000, and are now 11.9 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $255,700, which is 5.3 percent above December 2014.
In the Midwest, existing-home sales jumped 10.9 percent to an annual rate of 1.22 million in December, and are now 9.9 percent above December 2014. The median price in the Midwest was $171,000, up 7.5 percent from a year ago.
Existing-home sales in the South leaped 14.6 percent to an annual rate of 2.27 million in December, and are now 4.6 percent above December 2014. The median price in the South was $196,100, up 6.8 percent from a year ago.
Existing-home sales in the West catapulted 23.2 percent to an annual rate of 1.22 million in December, and are now 8.9 percent higher than a year ago. The median price in the West was $321,100, which is 8.2 percent above December 2014.