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A Sign of Spring in Housing?

Wednesday, 3 Mar 2010 | 1:34 PM ET
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I know one week does not a trend make, but the surge in mortgage purchase applications (up 9 percent last week according to the Mortgage Bankers Association), is the first bright sign I've seen in a while.

Couple that with the fact that temperatures in the Northeast may approach 50 degrees this weekend, and I'm thinking, dare I say it, Spring!

I've been talking to a lot of Realtors this week, who tell me that there are definitely folks out there kicking the tires, but it's all about price point. The latest report from the National Association of Realtors showed the share of home sales in the $0 to $100,000 range went from 23.6 percent in December to 26.7 percent in January. The low end is selling, and inventories on the low end are way down, especially in California.

"You have low interest rates, you have low prices, I mean we are several years behind now on our pricing, and that's good news for buyers. You've got a market where the buyers can negotiate, and you've got the government giving you a tax credits; those are four really good reasons to be a buyer now and into the Spring market because next year, who knows?" says Maryland Realtor Jane Fairweather.

What does not bode well, however, is that those same Realtors report that the number of first time home buyers in the market is shrinking.

40 percent of January's buyers were first timers, down from 43 percent in December and 51 percent in November.

First time buyers have taken advantage of about $12.5 billion worth of government cash in the form of the tax credit, according to the Treasury Department, and I just wonder how many more first timers there are left to sign a contract on a home in the next eight weeks (credit expires on contracts dated April 30).

One area to watch this Spring, I think, is the investor share of the housing market.

The Realtors reported that 26 percent of buyers in January were all-cash. Compare that to the historical norm of less than 10 percent. Not all cash buyers are investors, but the bulk of them are. In the hardest hit markets, like Las Vegas and Phoenix, banks are only taking cash, and that's pushing your organic buyers to the sidelines, tax credit and all.

There's no question the next few months will be rocky and uncertain in home sales and prices. There are far too many uncertainties right now, especially when it comes to government support of the market, to make predictions, but there are rumblings of something out there, something, perhaps, coming up for air.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.com

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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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