Homebuying activity is falling off a cliff

Pending home sales for August plunge 7.1% from the month before.

Homebuyers in every corner of the country retreated from the market heading into the fall as rising mortgage rates drained their purchasing power.

Pending home sales for August plunged 7.1% from the month before, according to the National Association of Realtors, down from the 0.9% monthly increase recorded in July. The result was far worse than the 1.0% decline that Bloomberg economists had estimated and was widespread. Every region recorded a monthly and year-over-year drop.

On a yearly basis, pending transactions were down by 18.7%.

The drop in the index, a leading indicator of the housing market’s health, further highlights how housing activity has been smothered by expensive mortgages, rising prices, and low inventory. Seasonality may also have played a role.

"Mortgage rates have been rising above 7% since August, which has diminished the pool of homebuyers," Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said in a statement. "Some would-be home buyers are taking a pause and readjusting their expectations about the location and type of home to better fit their budgets."

Read more: Mortgage rates at 20-year high: Is 2023 a good time to buy a house?

Contract signings in the Northeast declined 0.9% from the last month and were down 18.2% from August 2022 levels. Pending sales also dropped 7.0% in the Midwest and fell 19.1% from a year ago.

The South recorded a monthly dive of 9.1% in pending sales in August while also plunging 17.6% from the previous year. Activity in the West receded 7.7% and was down 21.4% from August 2022.

"The drop in pending home sales is due to a combination of higher mortgage rates and seasonal factors, with sales typically falling this time of year and the recent increases in rates have lowered mortgage demand and housing supply," Orphe Divounguy, senior economist at Zillow, told Yahoo Finance.

Elevated mortgage rates have landed a one-two punch on supply and demand.

Higher rates have robbed homeowners of the incentive to sell their houses and left buyers with few options in the resale market.

"Buyers simply can’t buy what’s not for sale," Divounguy said.

In August, the average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage surged to 7.23%, the highest rate point since June 2001 when rates were at 7.24%, according to Freddie Mac. Rates have stayed above 7% for seven weeks, squeezing affordability. The latest reading for the average rate on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage climbed to 7.31% as of September 28, per Freddie Mac.

Higher mortgage rates have also hit demand with many buyers scared off by sticker shock.

For instance, mortgage loan applications for purchases dropped 2% from the week prior on a seasonally adjusted basis, per data from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) for the week ending Sept. 22. Unadjusted, the index measuring purchase applications was 27% lower than a year ago.

The pickup in borrowing costs is even cracking the new home market, which had gotten a boost much of the year from the shortage of resale stock. Sales of newly built homes slid 8.7% to a seasonally adjusted rate of 675,000 units in August, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau.

"The level of sales showed some effect of elevated mortgage rates in action on housing demand," Colin Johanson, US macroeconomic research analyst at Barclays, wrote in a note following the new home sales results. "The decline can also be attributed to the sharp decline seen in last week's August housing starts release as many new home sales are sold before or when construction starts, thus causing some downward pressure to today's new home sales release."

Read more: How to buy a house in 2023

A For Sale sign is posted in front of a home for sale in San Marino, California on September 6, 2023. With US mortgage rates rising to 15-year highs hovering around 7.2% to start the post-Labor Day period, the difference between new 30-year home loan rates and on all outstanding US mortgage debt has not been this wide since the 1980s. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
A for-sale sign is posted in front of a home for sale in San Marino, Calif., on Sept. 6. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images) (FREDERIC J. BROWN via Getty Images)

The lean inventory on the market has allowed builders to step in and replenish housing supply by offering different incentives to attract prospective buyers to the newly built home market. But only so much demand can move inventory when borrowing costs keep rising.

"It’s clear that increased housing inventory and better interest rates are essential to revive the housing market," Yun said.

But it's also unlikely that mortgage rates will come down in a meaningful way in the near future. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said last week that the central bank could raise its benchmark interest rate again this year and likely hold the rate at higher levels if inflation doesn’t go back toward its 2% target.

That prompted Yun to raise the alarm on mortgage rates last week.

"In the short run, it’s possible that rates may go up to 8%," Yun said.


Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @daniromerotv.

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