Ahead of the Bell: US new-home sales

US sales of new homes likely slipped in January, as stronger economy fails to propel market

Associated Press
US new home sales fall slightly in January
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In this Jan. 8, 2015 photo, a flag advertising a new home for sale flaps in the breeze in Richmond, Va. The Commerce Department reports on U.S. sales of new homes in January on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Commerce Department reports January sales of new homes Wednesday at 10 a.m. Eastern.

FEWER SALES: Economists expect a 2.3 percent drop in new-home sales to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 470,000, according to a survey by data the firm FactSet. That would be a slight pullback from December's pace of 481,000.

SLOW START: Home sales have been sluggish so far this year. Snow has buried parts of the Northeast and Midwest, cutting into open house visits. Too few homes are being listed for sale and those that are still seem to be out of reach for many prospective buyers despite the recent hiring surge and historically low interest rates.

Sales of existing homes last month sank 4.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million. Contributing to that nine-month low was a tight inventory of homes on the market that sent prices higher. That may be pushing some home shoppers to wait for more choices at more inviting prices.

Yet builders have yet to ramp up construction.

Many firms are focused on selling to wealthier buyers, instead of competing on volume by constructing more houses at more affordable levels. Toll Brothers, which specializes in higher-end homes, reported Monday that its quarterly profits shot up 78 percent as the average price of a home sold by the Pennsylvania builder climbed to $821,500, from $766,100.

Home values are appreciating at a slower rate since 2014, yet they continue to outpace wage gains.

Average hourly wages grew 2.2 percent over the past 12 months, which is roughly half of the increase in home values, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index released Tuesday.

Economists do see reasons why home sales should improve this spring.

Mortgage rates remain near historic lows. The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 3.76 percent last week, according to the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. That has ticked up in recent weeks, but is far below the 4.33 percent average from a year ago.

And employers have hired at an accelerated clip over the past year. In the past three months alone, the U.S. economy has added more than 1 million jobs, the fastest three-month pace in 17 years. More Americans earning paychecks should eventually push home sales higher.

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