U.S. home purchases rebound as 2015 sales reach 9-year high

U.S. home sales rebounded in December after new regulations had delayed the completion of purchases in November. And total sales in 2015 were the most in nine years.

The National Association of Realtors said Friday that sales of existing homes climbed 14.7 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.46 million. Sales had previously plummeted as the industry adapted to new mortgage disclosure rules — a temporary downturn before delayed sales were finalized in December.

Last month's rebound capped a year that produced the highest annual sales total since 2006. Steady job growth and low mortgages drew more buyers into the market, causing both sales and prices to climb steadily.

Americans bought roughly 5.26 million homes in 2015, a 6.5 percent increase over 2014. The median sales price rose 6.8 percent to $222,400.

The national results for 2015 tracked with numbers from the Indianapolis area. Sales of existing homes in the nine-county area rebounded by 8 percent in 2015 and experienced their most robust performance since before the Great Recession, real estate agency F.C. Tucker Co. said earlier this month.

The number of signed sale agreements—also known as pended sales—in the nine-county area rose to 31,312 in 2015, up from 28,987 in 2014, Tucker said.

The Realtors forecast that national sales will stay flat in 2016 and that the median price will rise more than 4 percent. A price increase that big would compound a problem for many would-be buyers: A rising proportion of homes are unaffordable. Home values rose last year at more than twice the pace of pay.

Despite rising demand, the housing market continues to recover slowly from the bursting of the housing bubble more than eight years ago. Sales remain well below their peak of 7.08 million in 2005, when adjustable-rate mortgages with no money down and other risky loans fueled a buying frenzy that eventually fizzled and triggered the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

The November sales rate had dipped to 4.76 million largely because of new government rules that are meant to protect buyers. The Consumer Financial Protection introduced new guidelines in October for informing homebuyers about interest rates and fees for their mortgages.

In December, sales surged in the Northeast, Midwest, South and the West, with the Western states recording a dramatic 23.2 percent increase.

More traditional buyers returned to the market last year as cash investors pulled back. But the number of listings shrank, giving those shopping for a home fewer options and causing prices to rise.

The number of listings on the market fell 3.8 percent from a year ago. With inventory in short supply, more would-be buyers are stuck renting. The share of homeowners has slipped to 63.7 percent from a high of 69.2 percent in 2004.

Sales have been supported by a relatively healthy job market. Employers added a robust 2.7 million jobs last year as the unemployment rate dropped to 5 percent from 5.7 percent. Pay growth has been relatively tepid, but average hourly earnings have still improved 2.5 percent from a year ago to $25.24.

Low mortgage rates have also helped with affordability. Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage declined to 3.81 percent this week from 3.92 percent a week earlier. The average rate has increased from its 3.63 percent average a year ago but remains well below its historic average of 6 percent.

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