Short Supply Has Home Sales Barely 'Squeaking' Out Gains

Stephanie O'Brien inspects the kitchen in a home for sale during an open house in San Francisco, California.
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Stephanie O'Brien inspects the kitchen in a home for sale during an open house in San Francisco, California.

Signed contracts to buy existing homes rose 0.3 percent in April from March, according to the National Association of Realtors.

These so-called "pending" home sales are an indicator of final closed sales one to two months later. The index is up 10.3 percent from a year ago to the highest level since April of 2010, just before the expiration of the home buyer tax credit.

"The housing market continues to squeak out gains from already very positive conditions. Pending contracts so far this year easily correspond to higher closed home sales in 2013," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors.

(Read More: Rising Mortgage Rates Amid Fed Fears)

Total existing-home sales are expected to rise just over 7 percent to about 5 million this year.

Pending homes sales jumped 11.5 percent month-to-month in the Northeast, rose 3.2 percent in the Midwest, fell 1.1 percent in the South, and dropped 7.6 percent in the West, according to the Realtors.

The West is experiencing particularly low inventory of home listings, as all-cash investors are playing an outsized role in formerly distressed markets there. Short supplies of home listings have plagued sales across the nation, and a recent rise in mortgage rates has some Realtors noticing a slowdown in some markets.

"Because of inventory shortages, higher home sales will push up home values to the highest level in five years," Yun said, adding that the national median existing-home price should increase close to 8 percent and exceed $190,000 in 2013.

(Read More: Home Price Gains Go to Double Digits)

There are also fewer distressed homes for sale. Banks have been doing more aggressive loan modifications, and some banks are reportedly holding foreclosed homes off the market, as home prices continue to rise.

Some 101,371 bank-owned properties were sold in the first quarter of 2013, down 16 percent from the previous quarter and down 23 percent from a year ago, according to a new report from RealtyTrac. This was the lowest quarterly volume of bank-owned home sales in five years.

The average price of a foreclosure-related sale was $167,095 in the first quarter, up 3 percent from a year ago, according to the report.

Sales of all types of distressed properties, including bank-owned and properties in some stage of foreclosure, accounted for 21 percent of all U.S. home sales in the first quarter of this year, down from 25 percent a year ago and from a peak of 45 percent of all sales at the beginning of 2009.

(Read More: Map: Tracking the US Real Estate Recovery)

—By CNBC's Diana Olick; Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick or on Facebook at

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