U.S. Existing Homes Sales Fall In First-Quarter, Prices Mixed

Sales of existing U.S. homes fell 6.6% in the first quarter versus last year, but more markets are showing signs of improvement from the end of 2006, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Total state existing-home sales, including single-family homes and condos, were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.41 million units in the first quarter, down from a 6.86 million-unit pace in the year-ago quarter, the real estate trade group said. But first-quarter results were 2.4% higher than the fourth quarter of 2006 level of 6.26 million.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia showed increases in the sales pace from a year ago, up from only six states showing gains in the fourth quarter report. One state was unchanged, and complete data for two states were not available.

Meanwhile, the median price for an existing single-family home is down from last year's levels, but prices aren't falling as fast as they were last quarter. The national median existing single-family home price was $212,300 in the first quarter, down 1.8% from last year's $216,100, NAR said. In the fourth quarter, the median price fell 2.7% from the year earlier.

Prices of existing single-family homes in the first-quarter rose in 82 of 145 metro areas, including 11 areas that logged double-digit gains; 62 metro areas saw price declines and one was unchanged. During the fourth-quarter, 71 areas had reported price gains.

“Essentially, we see that the existing-home market is stabilizing in a broad cyclical trough and moving in the right direction, with a modest gain from the fourth quarter," Lawrence Yun, NAR's senior economist, said in a statement. "Conditions changed fairly rapidly during the boom, but we need more patience now to see a slow, gradual recovery, which should start in the second half of this year.”

But CNBC's Diana Olick says it might be too soon to throw around the word "stabilization." Olick reports that foreclosure filings continued at a brisk pace: there were 147,708 filings in April, down 1% from the month prior, but up a whopping 62% from April of 2006, according to RealtyTrac.

"We were disappointed that we only saw a one percent dip in April in terms of foreclosure activity," Rick Sharga of RealtyTrac told CNBC. "For the last two years we've done the report we saw a bigger dip in April than we have this year. This year, effectively, the numbers are flat."