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NEW YORK (AP) -- The number of people who signed contracts to buy homes rose in November, the fourth increase since hitting a low in June. Even with the gains, this year is shaping up to be the worst for home sales in 13 years.
The National Association of Realtors says its index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes increased 3.5 percent last month from a downwardly revised reading in October. Contract signings were up in the West and Northeast, but down in the South and Midwest.
Signings are 22.1 percent above June's index reading, which was the lowest level since the private group began tracking the data in 2001. But signings are 5 percent lower than November 2009 when buyers were scrambling to close purchases to qualify for the first federal tax credit.
Completed home sales -- which the Realtors group measures in a separate report -- are expected to total about 4.8 million units this year. That's much lower than the 6 million units that analysts consider a healthy pace. The last time sales were lower was 1997 when sales totaled 4.4 million units.
A third of the pending sales likely will be foreclosures or short sales, where a homeowner sells a house for less than what is owed on it, the NAR spokesman Walter Molony said. That tracks with the average for the year. These distressed sales go for discounts of up to 50 percent in some of the hardest-hit areas and will continue to weigh down home prices.
Many economists expect home prices to drop another 5 percent to 10 percent in the next six months before stabilizing. Prices fell in 20 of America's largest cities in October, according to the Standard& Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index released Tuesday.
There are several challenges facing the housing market aside from foreclosures. Potential buyers are worried about their jobs or are unable to qualify for a mortgage because lenders have tightened standards. And now mortgage rates are on the rise, gaining about two-thirds of a percentage point in the last month.
This week, the average rate on 30-year home loans rose to 4.86 percent from 4.81 percent, mortgage giant Freddie Mac said Thursday. That's the highest level in seven months. It hit its lowest level in 40 years in November at 4.17 percent. The rate on the 15-year mortgage, a popular refinance option, also is rising.
The report on contract signings from the Realtors showed that signings jumped 18.2 percent in the West and edged up 1.8 percent in the Northeast. The Midwest region saw a 4.2 percent drop in signings in October and the South posted a 1.8-percent dip.
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