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In a sign of stability, US new-home sales have posted a surprising gain

By Bloomberg | Boston Globe | May 26, 2020

New-home sales in the United States unexpectedly increased in April after swooning a month earlier, suggesting the housing market is starting to stabilize.

Purchases of new single-family houses climbed 0.6% from March to a 623,000 annualized pace, government data showed Tuesday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a drop to a 480,000 rate of sales. The median sale price fell 8.6% from a year earlier to $309,900.

The report boosted the stocks of home builders, which have rebounded in recent weeks. An index tracking the industry had jumped 19% in May through Friday, beating the gain in the S&P 500.

Mortgage rates near historic lows may be putting a floor under the housing market. And even as soaring unemployment and tighter credit standards threaten to complicate the recovery, home-building is proving to be a bright spot. Builders have been helped by local governments, which in many cases have deemed the industry essential and allowed work to continue.

Job losses are primarily hitting renters who are more likely to be working in lower-paying service and hospitality jobs that were damaged most by social-distancing rules, said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo.

Unlike the existing home market, which has seen a big drop in inventory, builders were able to accommodate buyers, showing floor plans virtually and even offering drive-thru closings.

“If the reopenings continue, housing may provide an upside surprise to the economy this year,’’ Vitner said.

Three of four US regions showed stronger home sales in April than a month earlier, reflecting 2.4% gains in the South and Midwest, the Commerce Department’s report showed. Purchases climbed 8.7% in the Northeast and dropped 6.3% in the West.

The government’s data measure signed contracts to buy homes. The slight gain in April came after sales dropped the most since 2013 in March, when much of the US economy shut down to stem the spread of coronavirus.

While housing is holding up better than expected, the recovery will depend on how quickly the rest of the economy bounces back.

“We’re still trying to understand what is the new normal,’’ said Alex Barron, an analyst with the Housing Research Center in El Paso.

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