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WASHINGTON (January 22, 2016) — Existing-home sales snapped back solidly in December as more buyers reached the market before the end of the year, and the delayed closings resulting from the rollout of the Know Before You Owe initiative pushed a portion of November's would-be transactions into last month's figure, according to the National Association of Realtors®. Led by the South and West, all four major regions saw large increases in December.

Total existing-home sales1, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, ascended 14.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.46 million in December from 4.76 million in November. After last month's turnaround (the largest monthly increase ever recorded), sales are now 7.7 percent above a year ago.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says December's robust bounce back caps off the best year of existing sales (5.26 million) since 2006 (6.48 million). "While the carryover of November's delayed transactions into December contributed greatly to the sharp increase, the overall pace taken together indicates sales these last two months maintained the healthy level of activity seen in most of 2015," he said. "Additionally, the prospect of higher mortgage rates in coming months and warm November and December weather allowed more homes to close before the end of the year."

The median existing-home price2 for all housing types in December was $224,100, up 7.6 percent from December 2014 ($208,200). Last month's price increase marks the 46th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Total housing inventory3 at the end of December dropped 12.3 percent to 1.79 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 3.8 percent lower than a year ago (1.86 million). Unsold inventory is at a 3.9-month supply at the current sales pace, down from 5.1 months in November and the lowest since January 2005 (3.6 months).

"Although some growth is expected, the housing market will struggle in 2016 to replicate last year's 7 percent increase in sales," adds Yun. "In addition to insufficient supply levels, the overall pace of sales this year will be constricted by tepid economic expansion, rising mortgage rates and decreasing demand for buying in oil-producing metro areas."

The percent share of first-time buyers was at 32 percent in December (matching the highest share since August), up from 30 percent in November and 29 percent a year ago. First-time buyers in all of 2015 represented an average of 30 percent, up from 29 percent in both 2014 and 2013. A separate NAR survey released in late 20154 revealed that the annual share of first-time buyers was at its lowest level in nearly three decades.

"First-time buyers were for the most part held back once again in 2015 by rising rents and home prices, competition from vacation and investment buyers and supply shortages," says Yun. "While these headwinds show little signs of abating, the cumulative effect of strong job growth in recent years and young renters' overwhelming interest to own a home5 should lead to a modest uptick in first-time buyer activity in 2016."

All-cash sales were 24 percent of transactions in December (27 percent in November) and are down from 26 percent a year ago. Individual investors, who account for many cash sales, purchased 15 percent of homes in December, down from both 16 percent in November and 17 percent a year ago. Sixty-four percent of investors paid cash in December.

According to Freddie Mac, the average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage stayed below 4 percent for the fifth consecutive month but increased in December to 3.96 from 3.94 percent in November. The average commitment rate for all of 2015 was 3.85 percent.

Properties typically stayed on the market for 58 days in December, an increase from 54 days in November but below the 66 days in December 2014. Short sales were on the market the longest at a median of 86 days in December, while foreclosures sold in 68 days and non-distressed homes took 57 days. Thirty-two percent of homes sold in December were on the market for less than a month.

"December's rebound in sales is reason for cautious optimism that the work to prepare for Know Before You Owe is paying off," says NAR President Tom Salomone, broker-owner of Real Estate II Inc. in Coral Springs, Florida. "However, our data is still showing longer closing timeframes, which is a reminder that the near-term challenges we anticipated are still prevalent. NAR advised members to extend the time horizon on their purchase contracts to address this concern, and we'll continue to work with our industry partners to ensure 2016 is a success for consumers, homeowners and Realtors® alike."

Distressed sales6 – foreclosures and short sales – declined to 8 percent in December, down from 9 percent in November and 11 percent a year ago. Six percent of December sales were foreclosures and 2 percent were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 16 percent below market value in December (15 percent in November), while short sales were discounted 15 percent (unchanged from November).

Single-family and Condo/Co-op Sales

Single-family home sales jumped 16.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million in December from 4.15 million in November, and are now 7.1 percent higher than the 4.50 million pace a year ago. The median existing single-family home price was $226,000 in December, up 8.0 percent from December 2014.

Existing condominium and co-op sales increased 4.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 640,000 units in December from 610,000 in November, and are now 12.3 percent above December 2014 (570,000 units). The median existing condo price was $209,900 in December, which is 4.9 percent above a year ago.

December existing-home sales in the Northeast increased 8.7 percent to an annual rate of 750,000, and are now 11.9 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $255,700, which is 5.3 percent above December 2014.

In the Midwest, existing-home sales jumped 10.9 percent to an annual rate of 1.22 million in December, and are now 9.9 percent above December 2014. The median price in the Midwest was $171,000, up 7.5 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the South leaped 14.6 percent to an annual rate of 2.27 million in December, and are now 4.6 percent above December 2014. The median price in the South was $196,100, up 6.8 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the West catapulted 23.2 percent to an annual rate of 1.22 million in December, and are now 8.9 percent higher than a year ago. The median price in the West was $321,100, which is 8.2 percent above December 2014.

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NOTE: For local information, please contact the local association of Realtors® for data from local multiple listing services. Local MLS data is the most accurate source of sales and price information in specific areas, although there may be differences in reporting methodology.

1Existing-home sales, which include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, are based on transaction closings from Multiple Listing Services. Changes in sales trends outside of MLSs are not captured in the monthly series. NAR rebenchmarks home sales periodically using other sources to assess overall home sales trends, including sales not reported by MLSs.

Existing-home sales, based on closings, differ from the U.S. Census Bureau's series on new single-family home sales, which are based on contracts or the acceptance of a deposit. Because of these differences, it is not uncommon for each series to move in different directions in the same month. In addition, existing-home sales, which account for more than 90 percent of total home sales, are based on a much larger data sample – about 40 percent of multiple listing service data each month – and typically are not subject to large prior-month revisions.

The annual rate for a particular month represents what the total number of actual sales for a year would be if the relative pace for that month were maintained for 12 consecutive months. Seasonally adjusted annual rates are used in reporting monthly data to factor out seasonal variations in resale activity. For example, home sales volume is normally higher in the summer than in the winter, primarily because of differences in the weather and family buying patterns. However, seasonal factors cannot compensate for abnormal weather patterns.

Single-family data collection began monthly in 1968, while condo data collection began quarterly in 1981; the series were combined in 1999 when monthly collection of condo data began. Prior to this period, single-family homes accounted for more than nine out of 10 purchases. Historic comparisons for total home sales prior to 1999 are based on monthly single-family sales, combined with the corresponding quarterly sales rate for condos.

2The median price is where half sold for more and half sold for less; medians are more typical of market conditions than average prices, which are skewed higher by a relatively small share of upper-end transactions. The only valid comparisons for median prices are with the same period a year earlier due to seasonality in buying patterns. Month-to-month comparisons do not compensate for seasonal changes, especially for the timing of family buying patterns. Changes in the composition of sales can distort median price data. Year-ago median and mean prices sometimes are revised in an automated process if additional data is received.

The national median condo/co-op price often is higher than the median single-family home price because condos are concentrated in higher-cost housing markets. However, in a given area, single-family homes typically sell for more than condos as seen in NAR's quarterly metro area price reports.

3Total inventory and month's supply data are available back through 1999, while single-family inventory and month's supply are available back to 1982 (prior to 1999, single-family sales accounted for more than 90 percent of transactions and condos were measured only on a quarterly basis).

4Survey results represent owner-occupants and differ from separately reported monthly findings from NAR's Realtors® Confidence Index, which include all types of buyers. Investors are under-represented in the annual study because survey questionnaires are mailed to the addresses of the property purchased and generally are not returned by absentee owners. Results include both new and existing homes.

5According to NAR's inaugural Housing Opportunities and Market Experience (HOME) survey (released last month), 94 percent of current renters 34 years of age or younger want to own a home in the future.

6Distressed sales (foreclosures and short sales), days on market, first-time buyers, all-cash transactions and investors are from a monthly survey for the NAR's Realtors® Confidence Index, posted at Realtor.org.

NOTE: NAR's Pending Home Sales Index for December will be released January 28, and Existing-Home Sales for January will be released February 23; release times are 10:00 a.m. ET.