Home resales rose in April to the highest level in nearly 3-1/2 years and prices surged, offering the economy a buffer from the stiff headwinds posed by belt-tightening by Washington.
The National Association of Realtors said on Wednesday existing home sales advanced 0.6 percent to an annual rate of 4.97 million units, the highest level since November 2009.
The data underscored the housing market’s improving fortunes as it starts to regain its lost glory. Resales were 9.7 percent higher than the same period last year.
“It’s quite supportive of the overall economy,” said Michelle Meyer, a senior economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York. “It’s a cushion against some of the other concerns in the economy.”
Economic activity appears to have slowed somewhat early in the second quarter as the effects of higher taxes and deep government spending cuts started filtering through.
Manufacturing, in particular, has been showing strains, but housing has held up surprisingly well, with the gains in home values helping to boost consumer confidence and retail sales.
The ripples from housing’s recovery have also extended to the jobs market, where construction employment has been rising.
That should limit the degree to which the economy slows this quarter. It expanded at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the first three months of the year.
U.S. stocks were narrowly mixed in afternoon trading. Treasury debt prices were lower while the dollar was higher against a basket of currencies.
Tight supplies in some parts of the country have constrained the pace of home sales, but sellers are starting to wade back into the market, attracted by rising prices.
In April, the median home sales price increased 11 percent from a year ago to $192,800, the highest level since August 2008. It was the fifth consecutive month of double-digit gains.
With prices rising, more sellers put their properties on the market. The inventory of homes on the market rose 11.9 percent from March to 2.16 million.
That represented a 5.2 months’ supply at April’s sales pace, up from 4.7 months in March. It remained, however, below the 6.0 months that is normally considered a good balance between supply and demand.
The market has been helped by monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve that has kept mortgage rates near record lows. On Wednesday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made clear he was not yet ready to retreat from the U.S. central bank’s monthly $85 billion asset purchase program.
Adding to signs that the housing recovery was becoming firmly established, distressed properties – which can weigh on prices because they typically sell at deep discounts – accounted for only 18 percent of sales last month.
That was the lowest since the Realtors group started monitoring them in October 2008. These properties, foreclosures and short sales, had made up 21 percent of sales in March.
In another bright sign, properties are selling faster. The median time on market for homes was 46 days in April, down from 62 days the prior month. That was the fewest days since the NAR started monitoring that number in May 2011. Before the market collapsed in 2006, it usually took about 90 days to sell a home.