Pending home sales fell 2.5 pct in January

The winter wallop may have chilled housing activity in some parts of the country, but overheated home prices are really what are slowing sales nationwide.

Home buyers signed 2.5 percent fewer contracts in January to buy existing homes compared to December. The expectation had been for a slight gain. The so-called pending home sales index from the National Association of Realtors, an indicator of future closed sales, is now just 1.4 percent higher than it was in January of 2015. Pending sales have been higher annually for 17 straight months, but this is the second smallest gain in that time.

Pending home sales
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"While January's blizzard possibly caused some of the pullback in the Northeast, the recent acceleration in home prices and minimal inventory throughout the country appears to be the primary obstacle holding back would-be buyers," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors. "Additionally, some buyers could be waiting for a hike in listings come springtime."

Pending home sales in the Northeast declined 3.2 percent in January, compared to December, but were 10.9 percent above a year ago. In the Midwest sales fell 4.9 percent monthly and are 1.4 percent above January, 2015. Sales in the South rose 0.3 percent for the month and are 1.3 percent lower than last January. In the West pending sales fell 4.5 percent in January and are just 0.4 percent above a year ago.

Tight supply has been plaguing the housing market for much of the past year. Inventory is lower now than a year ago, even as the spring housing market begins and more new listing come on. It is still not enough to meet demand.

An early read on February finds new listings that do come on the market are moving quickly. Housing inventory is moving six days faster than last year and four days faster than January, according to Realtor.com. Median listing prices are also up eight percent compared to a year ago.

"We don't usually see this type of acceleration until March or April. On a local level, the acceleration is really dramatic with nine of the top ten hottest markets shaving three weeks or more from their median age in January," said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist of Realtor.com

California markets continue to dominate Realtor.com's list of the hottest real estate markets, where homes for sale are selling fastest, but Dallas and Denver came in at numbers three and four. These cities are seeing new listings sell 44-78 days more quickly than the rest of the U.S.

The latest read on home prices nationally show them up 5.5 percent in December year-over-year, according to Black Knight Financial Services. As of the end of 2015, home prices were 27 percent above where they were at the bottom of the market in January, 2012, but still 5.3 percent off their peak of 2006.