Mixed signals for spring housing season

The spring housing market is still about a month away, but industry experts are already arguing its outcome. New reports offer very different views on both headwinds and tail winds. Overall economic conditions, everything from job growth to cheap gas, could help home sales. But still=high home prices, tight credit conditions and low supply all stand in the way.

"The housing recovery is barely on first base," said David Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. "Prospects for a home run in 2015 aren't good."

A cabinet specialist adjusts doors on a pantry of a Tresana model home at Toll Brothers Homes' Jupiter Country Club housing development in Jupiter, Florida.
Mark Elias | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A cabinet specialist adjusts doors on a pantry of a Tresana model home at Toll Brothers Homes' Jupiter Country Club housing development in Jupiter, Florida.

Blitzer made those comments in a monthly report on home prices from S&P/Case-Shiller, which showed home price gains had eased in November 2014 (a three-month running average ending in November). The strongest gains were limited to California, Florida, the Pacific Northwest, Denver, and Dallas, while the rest of the country is lagging the national average.

A more current report, however, gauging January sales and prices, was more optimistic. Real estate brokerage Redfin says home prices are 7.6 percent higher in January from a year ago (at least according to sales in the first three weeks of the month). It also says home tour demand among its listing hit an all-time record last week, with the number of customers requesting tours up 62 percent from a year ago.

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"Rock-bottom interest rates and easier loans are giving us flashbacks to 2013," said Nela Richardson, Redfin's chief economist. "A Redfin agent in Seattle, Klaus Gosma, hosted an open house for an average townhome that was flooded with 132 people over the weekend. In Denver, a house got 23 offers in one, snowy day."

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The numbers may be juiced by better news in the mortgage market. Not only are interest rates near record lows, but the FHA, the government insurer of home loans, lowered its annual premiums Monday by half a percentage point, which it estimates saves the average borrower about $900 a year.

While the amount isn't a lot, just the attention surrounding the announcement may have been enough to get potential buyers out for a look.

Home prices, however, will continue to be volatile, admits Redfin's Richardson, because today's savvier buyers refuse to overpay, and inventory should rise in the coming months, giving those buyers more leverage.

"If prices go up too far too fast, buyers will step back and wait for them to drop again," said Richardson. A steep jump in prices in 2013 caused sales to fall backward in 2014, according to the National Association of Realtors, which recently reported full-year 2014 sales 3 percent below 2013.

Monthly sales of newly built homes, a volatile reading, bumped up nearly 9 percent in December from a year ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While not a robust month for housing historically, the December jump may be due to a shortage of supply among existing homes. The median price of a newly built home rose 8 percent from a year ago.

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The nation's largest home builder, D.R. Horton reported fiscal first-quarter earnings Monday which beat estimates. Executives of the company cited its lower-priced, entry-level "Express Homes" division for part of its success as well as several incentives, such as free appliances.

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"Our weekly sales pace has accelerated in January, and we are well-positioned to capture demand in the spring selling season," said Donald R. Horton, chairman of the board.