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Homebuyers stepped up their purchases in March, signing contracts to buy existing homes at the highest pace in nearly a year.
A monthly index measuring pending sales increased 1.4 percent compared to February, and is also 1.4 percent higher than March of 2015, according to the National Association of Realtors. February's reading was revised down slightly.
"Despite supply deficiencies in plenty of areas, contract activity was fairly strong in a majority of markets in March," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors. "This spring's surprisingly low mortgage rates are easing some of the affordability pressures potential buyers are experiencing and are taking away some of the sting from home prices that are still rising too fast and above wage growth."
Pending sales, however, fell in the West, where prices have heated most. Homebuilders also saw steep declines in sales in that region last month, despite low supply of existing homes for sale.
"Demand is starting to weaken in some areas, particularly in the West, where the median home price has risen an astonishing 38 percent in the past three years," added Yun. "As a result, pending sales in the region have now declined in four of the last five months and are lower than one year ago for the third month in a row. Closed sales in the region in March were also below last year's pace."
Pending home sales in the Northeast increased 3.2 percent in March, compared to February and are 18.4 percent above a year ago. In the Midwest, sales were 0.2 percent higher for the month and 4.0 percent above March, 2015. Sales in the South rose 3.0 percent for the month but are still 0.6 percent lower than last March, and monthly sales in the West declined 1.8 percent, and are now 7.9 percent below a year ago.
Closed sales of existing homes in March, which are based on contracts signed in January and February, bounced back after earlier declines, but were just barely higher than March of 2015. A government report this week on sales of newly built homes, which is based on contracts signed in March, showed weakness for the third straight month.