Existing-Home Sales Slow in March

Existing-home sales taper off in March--is there trouble ahead for the housing market?

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In another dose of disappointing news for the housing market, sales of existing homes fell for the second month in a row, according to data released Thursday, prompting fears that the long-awaited housing recovery heralded earlier this year may be flagging.

Existing-home sales, which include single-family homes, townhomes, condos, and co-ops, slipped almost 3 percent to an annual rate of about 4.5 million units in March, according to the National Association of Realtors.

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The news comes on the heels of subpar new construction numbers reported Tuesday, which showed a sharp pullback in multi-family building, such as apartments. Multi-family starts fell almost 17 percent, the Census Bureau reported, pretty much erasing gains recorded in January and February.

Still, there was some good news nestled in the disappointing headline numbers. Looking back longer term, sales have actually seen nine consecutive months of year-over-year sales increases, according to NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun.

Yun is also optimistic that this month's numbers are just part of the normal ups and downs of the housing recovery.

"Existing-home sales are moving up and down in a fairly narrow range that is well above the level of activity during the first half of last year," he said in a statement. "With job growth, low interest rates, bargain home prices and an improving economy, the pent-up demand is coming to market and we expect housing to be notably better this year."

[Read: A Delayed Winter for Housing?]

Another sliver of good news was that the supply of homes on the market continues to fall. Total housing inventory fell to about a six-month supply at the current sales pace, according to NAR, down from more than double that in July 2010. That gave a little boost to home prices, which saw a 2.5 percent increase over levels seen last March.

Even with the slowdown in March, experts expect existing-home sales to grow in coming months, surging 10 percent higher overall in 2012 than in 2011, IHS Global Insight predicts.

mhandley@usnews.com

Twitter: @mmhandley