Senate panel OKs extension for home buyers’ credit

October 29, 2009
Author: The Philadelphia Inquirer, Alan J. Heavens

Lawmakers in Washington also added a $6,500 tax credit for other primary-home purchasers and raised the qualifying income limits to $125,000 for single taxpayers and $225,000 for joint taxpayers, housing-industry sources said.

Under the Senate compromise, buyers must have sales agreements in hand by April 30, but they will have until June 30 to go to settlement, the sources said. The measure still faces votes in the full Senate and the House.

The current tax credit did little for the new-home market in September, the Commerce Department reported – news that took many industry analysts by surprise. Sales fell 3.6 percent from August and 7.8 percent from September 2008.

Industry observers had expected a fifth consecutive monthly increase in new-home sales, believing that the tax incentive for qualified first-time buyers – credited with 357,000 sales of previously owned homes so far this year – would do the trick.

Instead, sales of typically more expensive newly built houses slipped.

“The decline in new-home sales seems to us to be more a function of the attractive pricing available on resales in the current environment than a reflection of weakening demand,” said Michael Feder, president of Radar Logic Inc., of New York, which tracks the market.

“Big deal,” said Joel L. Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, of Holland, Bucks County. “Since hitting rock bottom in March, demand is up 20 percent.”

For Naroff, the robust rise in existing-home purchases – 9.2 percent year over year in September – indicated that the housing market was not faltering.

“Maybe the issue is supply, which fell to its lowest level in 27 years,” he said. “Builders, at least those left standing, have been making sure they don’t have any houses sitting around, and they have been very successful in controlling inventories.”

IHS Global Insight Inc. economist Patrick Newport echoed that, noting new-home inventories “sank for the 29th straight month to their lowest level since November 1982.”

Naroff maintained housing had recovered enough to stand without the tax credit. But Newport said he believed that if the credit were not extended and expanded, housing demand would take a hit, and home sales would drop.

Until the Senate compromise today, the extension of the credit seemed mired in what National Association of Home Builders vice president Jerry Howard called “a game of partisan chicken.”

Howard’s take on the lower September numbers: It was too late to sign a contract on a house that would be completed by the current Nov. 30 deadline, and many buyers were concerned the credit would not be extended.

The credit has helped, acknowledged Marshal Granor, a principal in Granor Price Homes, of Horsham. But he added, “I’d love for it to go away, for a month.”

“People who believe there is no rush aren’t buying, they are waiting for more bargains from more squeezed sellers,” Granor said.

Still, said Feder of Radar Logic, lower home prices have carried “buyers further into the autumn than we would expect, based on historic patterns.”

Declining inventory means builders will have to ramp up production, Newport said.

As the Senate worked on the compromise, third-quarter data were released showing that the burden of foreclosure filings in the post-bubble market continued to shift from the subprime-ridden “sand” states (California, Nevada, Florida and Arizona) to areas with rising levels of unemployment and adjusting rates on the “exotic” mortgages prevalent in high-cost metropolitan markets.

Yet Las Vegas remained the toxic-loan capital, according to the third-quarter survey by RealtyTrac Inc., of Irvine, Calif. – its rate of foreclosure filings was seven times higher than the national average.

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