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Housing Numbers: Green Shoots or Red Flags?

Monday, 4 May 2009 | 2:40 PM ET
Home Construction
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Home Construction

Two new pieces of data out today suggest, at face value at least, an improvement in the housing market.

First, construction spending rose 0.3 percent in March. Now granted, that's not an awful lot, but it's the first time that number has been positive in six months. The trouble is, single family construction dropped 8.6 percent after falling a record 11 percent in February. Nonresidential construction, however, came in strong and actually unexpectedly strong.

Okay, great then about nonresidential, except that the gains came in commercial buildings, educational buildings and manufacturing, which are all overbuilt already for today's real estate climate. "March's gains were likely from ongoing projects that were started when the outlook was brighter than it is today," writes economist Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight.

Of course on the bright side, you could argue that continued drops in residential construction spending is a good thing for the market, given how high new home inventories are right now. The less we build, the faster we get back to normal levels of supply and demand. That's the bright side, if you are not actually a home builder.

The second piece of data, Pending Home Sales from the National Association of Realtors, also came in higher than expected. An increase of 3.2 percent month to month in contracts signed for existing homes could signal a coming boost in existing home sales. Of course, "while pending home sales have historically been a one-month leading indicator to existing home sales, with a 71% correlation using a one-month lag," writes JP Morgan analyst Michael Rehaut, "we note that since October, the relationship has been more volatile. Specifically, Feb.’s Pending Home Sales rose 2.0%, but March Existing Home Sales fell 3.0%." Rehaut adds that rising unemployment and weak consumer confidence will keep these levels depressed through the year.

Most agree that the increase in demand is driven by continued demand for foreclosures, a huge increase in affordability, low mortgage rates and the $8000 first time home buyer tax credit. Credit-Suisse analyst Dan Oppenheim in looking for a correlating rise in existing home sales in April, based on these pending numbers, a 3.9 percent increase to be precise. Since the largest gains appear to be in the South and West (homes to your biggest boom and bust states), we can probably expect to see even a bigger percentage of sales coming from foreclosures or short sales. And that's not bad.

The faster we get rid of the distressed inventory, the faster we can get regular, higher-priced homes some action.

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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