Pending Home Sales: Worthless

I realize I'm not making friends with the Realtors by trouncing their index today, but I have to say honestly: I've read an awful lot of National Association of Realtorreports in my time on the housing beat (five years+), and never before have I seen them express so much skepticism in such a positive report. Remember, so many of you in the blogosphere refer to the NAR as the "shills" for the industry, which I supposed is what they're paid to be. But I digress.

This month's Pending Home Sales Indexfrom the NAR rose 6.4 percent month to month and is now up for seven straight months. The index measures contracts signed on homes, and is therefore considered a forward-looking indicator for closings, which are final sales and which comprise the Existing Home Sales report each month. So given a two-month lag time from contract to closing, you would expect that the Pending index would mirror the Existing sales numbers, that is, August Pendings would equal, give or take a few, October's Existings. The trouble is we are not in a normal market.

“The rise in pending home sales shows buyers are returning to the market and signing contracts, but deals are not necessarily closing because of long delays related to short sales, and issues regarding complex new appraisal rules,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun.

I followed up with the Realtors, asking just how many contracts they believe are failing to get to closing.

"We really don't know for sure, but it appears to have increased, particularly regarding HVCC [Home Valuation Code of Conduct-new appraisal rules]. Lawrence thinks it may be as high as a double-digit number that are being cancelled or postponed," NAR's Walter Molony wrote to me in response.

Well, I wanted to see what's what, and that means a chart. Big thanks to CNBC's Sabrina Korber, whom I had to steal from Steve Liesman for a few minutes because I stink at making computer charts. This chart shows the percentage changes in both the Pending and Existing Home numbers. I had to use percentage trends because the Pending is an index and Existing are real sales. I also added in the two month lag, putting the existing sales two months later over the pending index, so you can see the comparison. It tracks pretty closely for a while, but you see what happens over the summer.

Pending vs. Existing chart
Pending vs. Existing chart

And one more thing from Lawrence Yun: “There is likely to be some double counting over a span of several months because some buyers whose contracts were cancelled have found another home and signed a new contract to buy,” Yun explained. “Perhaps the real question is how many transactions are being delayed in the pipeline, and how many are being cancelled? Without historic precedents, it’s challenging to assess.”

Like I've been saying all along, we're in uncharted territory.

Questions? Comments?