Beyond 'frozenomics': What's hurting the housing market
Ask any real estate agent east of Nevada, and they'll blame slower home sales this winter squarely on harsh winter weather.
Sales of existing and newly built homes were down in December from November; existing home sales were down nearly 9 percent from December 2012, while sales of newly built homes were up 4.5 percent. Reports of lackluster buyer traffic in January don't bode well for those sales numbers either. They will be reported next week.
"The Northeast and the Midwest truly, those weather patterns have impacted the listing market," said Richard Smith, CEO of Realogy, whose brands include Coldwell Banker, Century 21 and Sotheby's International. "So until we see some relief there, you're going to see lower inventory levels, and then one day it's going to spike, and it will be sometime in early spring, of that we're fairly optimistic, but I can't predict that any more than you can."
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While weather makes for a fair argument, it is not the full picture of this winter's housing slowdown. Sales are weaker across the nation, but they are falling hardest in the West, where weather is less of a factor. New numbers this week from Southern California are a clear example. Closed sales there in December fell 21.4 percent from November and were down nearly 10 percent from December 2012, according to San Diego-based DataQuick.
"The economy is growing, but southern California home sales have fallen on a year-over-year basis for four consecutive months now and remain well below average. Why? We're still putting a lot of the blame on the low inventory. But mortgage availability, the rise in interest rates and higher home prices matter, too," John Walsh, DataQuick president, said in a release.
It might be easier to blame bad weather for a slowdown in construction, but building material sales were up by 1.4 percent in January, according to a government report released Thursday. This, as furniture sales fell for the third-straight month.
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"Overall, it still leads us to more mixed data where we may just have to wait for the snow storms to stop in order to glean what's real and what's the impediment of weather," wrote Peter Boockvar of the Lindsey Group.
There was also a bump up in employment for "specialty contractors" like plumbers, electricians and roofers in January. Some made the leap that those were hires for repairs due to the harsh weather, but, again, it could just be an anomaly.
"The survey week was the mildest for weather of the month, which means any catch-up in construction, which wouldn't need to be much, would show up as an unusual rise in construction," said Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial.
Parsing the numbers in housing today is like counting snowflakes on I-95. There are just far too many factors playing into the recovery to blame any one.
"Bad weather tends to hurt construction and sales, but weather gets an unfair share of the blame," said Trulia's Jed Kolko. "Two other factors are holding back sales: rising prices and the decline in foreclosure inventory. In the last quarter of 2013, sales dropped most in the West, where home price increase shave been steepest, putting homes farther out of many buyers' reach and making the math less favorable for investors."
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Once the snow clears, the real drivers of this recovery will emerge, as will their relative strengths. Demand, credit, inventory and price trump weather, whatever the weather.
—By CNBC's Diana Olick. Follow her on Twitter