With existing home sales figures for February still remarkably high - despite a slight dip compared to January figures - analysts are adopting a wait-and-see attitude as to whether the significantly upward numbers are valid indicators of an exceptionally robust housing market going forward.
"We usually don't pay much heed to monthly existing home sales, because month-to-month variation is notoriously noisy," wrote Glenn Boyd, an associate director at the mortgage strategy group at UBS Warburg, in a recent report "But with two historically strong readings, it's getting hard to ignore. The housing market certainly appears to be steam-rolling along."
In the most recent results, which were released last week by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), existing home sales dropped to 5.88 million units in February from 6.05 units in January. Before the surge that occurred in January, the monthly record was 5.49 million units.
According to UBS, existing home sales for February fell by only 3% from January. However, day-count alone would mean a 4% decline, so "home sales were essentially flat on the month,"said Boyd.
Despite the still very strong results for February, UBS's Boyd is not a believer just yet.
"I think it is safer not to look at month-to-month fluctuations in existing home sales," said Boyd. He added that the fact that there are two consecutive months of outstanding existing home sales numbers "is suggestive but I don't think is conclusive."
In the UBS report, Boyd also cites unseasonably warm weather as a possible root cause for some of the heightened turnover, so it would be logical for home sales to go back to recent historical norms. However, warm weather can only partly explain the phenomenal increase in home sales because home sales in the South, where it is warm, are currently almost as elevated as nationally.
Greenwich Capital said that in all of the four major regions of the country, the drop in the pace of resales in February retraced only a small part of the January runup, a fact that shows "a vigor in the underlying demand for homes," said economists from the firm.
Greenwich is careful to note, however, that current existing home sales figures were recorded at contract closing or late in the buying process, so the current numbers are probably based on decisions and commitments that were made in the fall and around the turn of the year when rates were still extremely favorable.
This is why Greenwich said, "the extent to which home purchases will be affected by the recent backup in mortgage rates is thus still uncertain."
However, economists from Greenwich believe that the decline in home purchases will be limited.
"Generally mortgage rates by historical standards are still fairly low," said Jade Zelnik, economist at Greenwich. "Homes are still quite affordable even based on recent mortgage rates and, if anything, these mortgage rates are going to come off a little bit after being pushed up by the recent run in Treasury yields."
New home sales
Greenwich also reported that the rebound in new home sales in February was more muted than expected. The number of homes sold went up to 875 in February from 831 in January.
Economists from the firm said that while activity in this sector remains robust, "new home sales haven't shown quite the same buoyancy as existing home sales," they said.
They explained that the difference in the numbers likely shows the discrepancy in timing. New home sales are recorded early in the home-buying process, reflecting the current level of interest rates. This is why new homes sales went up significantly in Nov. and Dec. of last year, which was around the time when the 30-year mortgage rates were near 30-year lows, while diminishing early this year as rates have gone up.
On the other hand, as mentioned above, resales are recorded late in the buying process, so it is being driven by the lows in mortgage rates last fall.