by Kenneth R. Harney

Unemployment and foreclosures continue to be huge weights holding back the economy, but housing’s performance is just the opposite: Its signs of rebound keep getting stronger and stronger.

Take a look at this week’s numbers: Pending home sales rose again for the ninth straight month, up by nearly 4 percent.

Dr. Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, says the combination of tax credits, affordable prices and rock-bottom mortgage rates are “helping unleash a pent-up demand” from tens of thousands of financially-qualified renters and other buyers who’d been glued to the sidelines for months or even years.

Pending sale, where contracts have been signed but closings have not yet occurred, are a key indicator of where we’re headed in housing over the coming several months.

The Northeast region led the country this time around — up by an exceptional 20 percent for the month. In the Midwest, pending sales jumped nearly 12 percent, while in the South they were up by 5 percent.

Only the Western region saw a decline — a sizable one at 11 percent.

Yun said the strong sales outlook in most parts of the country is beginning to make a real dent in unsold inventories — now around a seven month supply — and that sometime in the first half of next year, the housing market should reach a “self-sustaining” point where prices are moving up moderately and demand is strong.

Meanwhile, sales of newly constructed houses nationwide jumped by 6.2 percent in the latest monthly survey by HUD and the Census Bureau. The rate of total sales is now 31 percent higher than it was in January.

Mortgage rates continue to make both new and resale home purchases easier: Thirty year fixed rates declined to just below 4.8 percent on average last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Fifteen year rates dropped below 4.3 percent, which is the lowest recorded by the MBA since it began its national rate survey in 1970.

There was even a hint of better news coming on the employment front last week. The consulting firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas reported that layoffs by employers dropped sharply in November to about 50,000, down from 182,000 in November of 2008.

That’s obviously still a lot of people losing jobs, and the unemployment rate is still stuck in double digits, but even the smallest hints of stabilization on jobs could prove to be hugely important for housing and real estate.

Published: December 8, 2009