Realtors' economist sees signs of hope in a sea of depressing statistics, but others are more pessimistic.
Another week, another set of housing statistics that show trouble continues in the housing market.
Fewer people signed contracts to buy existing homes in January than in December, the National Association of Realtors reported today. That was the second straight month of decline.
The NAR's "index of sales agreements" fell 2.8%, to 88.9. That's higher than the low of 75.9 in June 2010. But it's below 100, which is the rate for 2001 and the number considered healthy. The index measures signed contracts for existing homes, which are usually one to two months ahead of closed sales.
The figures are consistent with other recently released data that indicate the housing market is still struggling. Sales of new homes fell significantly in January. Sales of existing homes rose slightly from December to January, as investors and cash buyers became a bigger part of the market. Home prices hit new lows in December in 11 of 20 markets tracked by Case-Shiller.
The Obama administration is weighing yet another proposal for principal reduction, but banks are already balking.
One of the intractable problems of the housing crisis has been the number of people who owe more than their homes are worth, about 27% nationwide but 50% or more in some hard-hit areas.
The Obama administration, in conjunction with a number of state attorneys general, is pushing for a plan in which servicers would write down principal on home loans, hoping to bring a quicker end to the foreclosure crisis.
If the immediate reaction to the proposal – which hasn't even been finalized yet – is any indication, the prospect of meaningful principal reduction is uncertain at best. Banks have long resisted forgiveness of principal, fearing it would encourage people who can pay their underwater mortgages to stop paying.
My Los Angeles home wasn't too far from Natalie Portman's neighborhood, but it was a little smaller.
Years ago, when I moved to Los Angeles, I headed off to see a house for rent off Los Feliz Boulevard, a rambling road that runs through several miles of L.A. To get there from Burbank, I passed all of these gorgeous mansions, on large, lush lots. "Wow!" I thought. "What kind of a neighborhood is this house in?"
As you might guess, eventually the houses got smaller and smaller until I ended up in a neighborhood of tiny stucco houses on small lots. But the 1925 house was cute, and I lived there happily for 15 months. I just didn't have movie stars for neighbors.
I'm reminded of my time living off Los Feliz Boulevard (pronounced FEE-liz, not feh-LEEZ, the normal pronunciation of the Spanish word for happy) by Zillow's report on the homes of some of the Oscar nominees.
In a much fancier neighborhood off Los Feliz sits Natalie Portman's 1933 estate, which she bought for $3.25 million in 2009. Her lot is bigger than my tiny plot was: 18,000 square feet with a swimming pool and two guest houses. The main house is 4,866 square feet, with four bedrooms and two baths. Even if she wins the Best Actress award for her work in "Black Swan," she won't be walking down the red carpet at home; she has wood floors.
Federal housing officials say mortgage firms violated state and federal laws in foreclosure cases, and the government is preparing sanctions as well as planning industry reforms.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are planning to penalize mortgage servicers for their sloppy work in foreclosures and mortgage modification cases.
Homeowners have complained bitterly that servicers routinely lose their paperwork, fail to communicate with them about foreclosures and don't take timely action on requests for mortgage modifications.
Plus, foreclosures ground to a halt last fall over disclosures that servicers had not reviewed documents before filing foreclosure actions in court, instead relying on "robo-signers" who had never seen the documents.
For Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which back half of U.S. home mortgages, those lapses have been costly – and the homeowners have found the situation painful, too.
A dismal sales report adds to other pessimistic reports on the state of housing. Mortgage rates fall to 4.95%.
The dismal outlook for sales of new homes continues, with a significant decline in sales in January, which followed the worst year for new-home sales in at least 47 years.
At the rate new homes sold in January, the seasonally adjusted number for the year would be 284,000, the U.S. Commerce Department reported Thursday. That's less than half the number considered necessary for a healthy market. A total of 322,000 new homes were sold last year, 14.1% fewer than in 2009 and the lowest number since the Commerce Department began keeping records in 1963.
"This is still a very weak demand picture,” economist Jonathan Basile of Credit Suisse told Bloomberg. "There has been no recovery in housing starts, permits or new-home sales. We’re in a period where demand and supply will run well below average."
Mickey Mantle's Oklahoma hometown, done in by mining waste, sinkholes and finally a tornado, is being razed.
Twenty-eight years after Picher, Okla., was declared one of the most toxic towns in America, the last six residents are watching their town disappear before their eyes.
The yellow brick First Baptist Church fell recently to the wrecker's ball, Abby Sewell of The Los Angeles Times reports, and the other abandoned and boarded-up buildings will soon follow.
"I'd like to have stayed myself," John Harvey, who moved to nearby Miami, Okla., in 2009, told Sewell. "I lived here as a little kid, and I'm not saying where lead ain't bad for you, which I'm sure it is. But myself, I don't think they should have condemned it. They should have left us alone. Should've just left us alone."
Picher, once home to baseball great Mickey Mantle, was founded in 1918 as a mining town. It was the waste from the mining of lead and zinc ore, waste that was used to build driveways and sidewalks and roads, that did in the town. The last mine closed in 1970, but the contaminated land and the water below remained, and the 40 square miles in and around Picher was declared a Superfund toxic waste site in 1983.
Realtors report more homes are being sold to investors and in all-cash deals as questions are raised about the group's statistics.
The number of used homes sold in the United States rose in January, for a third straight month, with fewer homes going to first-time buyers and more going to investors and cash buyers.
The national median home price was down 3.7% from January 2010, to $158,800, according to the National Association of Realtors. That's consistent with data released Tuesday by S&P/Case-Shiller, which found that prices had dropped 4.1% from December 2009 to December 2010, hitting record lows in 11 of 20 major markets.
The Realtors reported 5.36 million homes sold in January, up 2.7% from December, using seasonally adjusted figures. That compares with 5.09 million homes sold in January 2010. The figures include single-family homes, townhouses, condos and co-ops.
Ad agency interns gave four New Yorkers cell phones and Twitter accounts and asked them to tell the world about life on the streets.
We all pass homeless people on the street, and most of the time we avert our eyes and walk away. Their stories stay with them.
Three interns at an advertising agency in New York decided that giving the homeless access to social media might get more people to listen to their stories.
So they signed up four homeless men suggested by a New York City shelter, got four prepaid cell phones and got the four men on Twitter.
That's right, Twitter.
Among the reams of 140-character updates being streamed from the digital cognoscenti every day in the microblogging service Twitter are updates from Danny, Derrick, Albert and Carlos. You can read their stories here.