- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A real estate group says home prices fell in eight out of every 10 U.S. cities in the third quarter of this year as heavily discounted distressed sales made up 30 percent of all deals.

But home sales continued their climb, with quarterly sales outpacing the second quarter and the previous year’s figures, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday.

The median sales prices of existing homes declined in 123 out of 153 metropolitan areas compared with the same period a year ago. Prices rose in the other 30 cities.

The national median price was $177,900, or 11 percent below that of the third quarter last year.

“The decline in the national median price has moderated recently, and a shrinking supply of unsold inventory suggests we are getting closer to price stabilization in many areas,” said Lawrence Yun, the group’s chief economist. “But we need a steady stream of financially qualified buyers to further reduce inventory and get us to a self-sustaining market.”

Separately, the Treasury Department said Tuesday that as of the end of October, more than 650,000 borrowers, or 20 percent of those eligible, had signed up for the Obama administration’s mortgage-relief program to reduce monthly payments to more affordable levels.

Launched with great fanfare in March, the plan got off to a weak start, but now nearly 920,000 loan-modification offers have been sent to more than 3.2 million eligible homeowners. That works out to 29 percent, up from 15 percent at the end of July.

The homes report said prices in Fort Myers, Fla., plunged 40 percent to $98,000 from a year ago, the worst in the nation. Las Vegas saw its median price tumble almost 35 percent to $138,500 year over year.

The largest price gain, by contrast, was in Cumberland, Md., where prices jumped 19 percent to $122,100. Davenport, Iowa, followed with an increase of 14 percent to $115,600.

The federal tax credit of up to $8,000 for first-time homebuyers helped boost sales in the third quarter. U.S. home sales rose in 45 states from the second quarter, with 28 states posting double-digit gains.

Total quarterly sales reached a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.3 million, up more than 11 percent from 4.76 million in the second quarter.

President Obama signed a bill last week extending and expanding the federal tax credit. Now, buyers who have owned their current homes for at least five years are eligible for tax credits of up to $6,500. First-time homebuyers - or anyone who hasn’t owned a home in the past three years - would still get up to $8,000. To qualify, buyers have to sign a purchase agreement by April 30, 2010, and close by June 30.

Meanwhile, though the Obama administration’s mortgage-relief program has reached one in five eligible homeowners, most of those borrowers are on temporary trial plans.

To make the change permanent, borrowers must complete a big stack of paperwork and show they can make their payments on time. At the beginning of September, only about 1,700 permanent modifications had been made. The Treasury Department expects to release updated data later this month.

“We’re seeing some early indications that the servicers haven’t done enough to get all the documents in,” said Michael Barr, an assistant Treasury secretary.

In California, about 130,000 homeowners have been enrolled in the “Making Home Affordable” loan-modification plan. That works out to about 19 percent of the state’s homeowners who were either two payments behind or in foreclosure at the end of last month, according to Treasury Department data.

Two other hard-hit states, Arizona and Nevada, had similar rates of assistance as California, at 22 percent and 18 percent respectively. Florida, however, was much lower, at 12 percent, possibly because of high numbers of investor-owned properties that don’t qualify for the program.

Government officials say they are pressing mortgage companies hard to improve their performance. Still, many housing advocates have been disappointed with the $50 billion plan’s progress and say that getting a loan modification remains a battle.

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