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Did Housing Just Bounce Off the Bottom?


Good news for the U.S. housing market popped up here and there like spring bulbs in recent weeks.

Housing starts in March remained steady for the third month in a row, after many months of slipping or tumbling downward.

A survey of homebuilder confidence rose 5 points in April to its highest level since October, 2008.

And new home sales, traffic and sales expectations all "lifted meaningfully" in March, according to a builder survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

All these bright spots in what has been a uniformly dismal outlook for U.S. housing caused many to ask if the market has finally reached bottom.

"This is a very encouraging sign that we are at or near the bottom of the current housing depression," said David Crowe, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, referring to the April NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI). The 5-point gain in the index was the largest monthly increase recorded since May, 2003 and it brought the HMI out of single-digit territory for the first time in six months. Every component of the index recorded gains, with the biggest boost in sales expectations for the next six months.

"With the prime home buying season now underway, builders report that more buyers are responding to the pull of much-improved affordability measures, including low home prices, extremely favorable mortgage rates and the introduction of the $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit," Crowe added.

Builders surveyed by John Burns Real Estate Consulting were generally more confident about the future, over and above what might be expected from the arrival of the selling season. The rating of future sales improved substantially, and expectations rose in every single region except the Northwest, the company stated.

"We think the improvement is attributable primarily to improved affordability," said CEO John Burns. "The new home tax credit in California is also helping."

Earlier in the year, traffic and sales gains were largely limited to builders at the affordable end of the market. But in April, those gains spread to more upscale builders as well, the company reported.

Although single-family housing starts continued steady, other housing indicators provided a mixed view. Overall starts fell to a seasonably adjusted annual rate of 510,000, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures, due to a 29% reduction in multi-family starts, which are known to be volatile.

Building permits also fell in March, 9% overall, with single-family permits off by 7.4% and multi-family down by 12.6%.

The figures were, "right on target with NAHB's forecast, which anticipates that housing starts will bottom out in the second quarter, after new-home sales have stabilized," Crowe said.