Economists and real estate officials no doubt wish the April numbers were higher, but the 2.2 percent increase in Hamilton County and North Georgia and the 3.4 percent national rise in home sales compared with a month earlier are positive signs that local and national economies on the rebound.
The across-the-board increases add to already growing evidence that home sales, an important indicator of consumer confidence, continue to accelerate, though not at an equal pace in all areas of the country. Indeed, analysis of April's numbers reveals several important trends.
Sales increases, in fact, were reported in each of the nation's four geographic regions. Sales to first-time buyers increased from March to April. Median sales prices generally increased across the country, though there were some local and regional fluctuations. There were other positive signs, as well, that the housing market is starting to build momentum after almost five years in the doldrums.
Among the most important was the reported decline in the proportion of distressed property sales - homes in default or those repossessed by lenders. Home prices generally rise as the number of distressed properties sold declines. In April, homes in that category totaled 28 percent of sales. That's still high, but it is a considerable improvement over the 37 percent reported in similar sales a year ago.
Positive as signs are, home sales still have a way to go to reach what economists say is a consistently healthy level. The National Association of Realtors said that the April increase in home sales translates into a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.62 million sales. That's a hefty number, one not seen in several years. Still, it remains below the 6 million sales per year that experts say would indicate a fully recovered market. Still, there's reason for continued optimism.
Sales certainly are better this year than last. And almost without exception, that improvement has come through incremental, month to month gains. The growth is occurring not only in sales of previously occupied homes, which constitute about 80 percent of the market, but in other categories as well. Additional homes are coming to market as owners see a growing opportunity to sell their homes and as builders become more confident that there is a demand for their product. Indeed, builder optimism is now at its highest level in five years.
Some problems remain in the housing market. Credit for would-be home buyers remains fairly tight on the whole, though there are some signs that it might be loosening slightly. That means that some buyers still might have trouble meeting new, stringent requirements for loans and the need for larger down payments. That can negate historically low mortgage rates in some instances.
Still, the total of homes sold and the number of would-be buyers continuing to enter the market continues to rise. Both are signs that recovery in the all-important housing market, albeit it slow, remains on track.