Odd increase in Sept. sales

Analysts questioned data for new homes. Also, orders dropped for big-ticket goods.

WASHINGTON - Sales of new homes posted an unexpected increase in September, but analysts viewed the small gain announced yesterday as highly questionable given the severe credit crunch that rocked the housing industry this summer.

They predicted further sales declines before the worst housing slump in more than two decades ends.

In other economic news yesterday, the government said orders for big-ticket manufactured goods dropped an unexpected 1.7 percent last month following an even bigger 5.3 percent plunge in August, while the number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits fell a smaller-than-expected 8,000 last week to total 331,000.

Last month's drop in orders reflected weakness in such areas as autos, fabricated metals, computers and electronics products, while orders for commercial aircraft increased.

In the housing report, the Commerce Department said sales of new homes rose 4.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 770,000 units, an unexpected jump when economists were looking for a 2.5 percent decline.

But analysts noted that the department also revised sales figures for the last three months down sharply: Sales in August, for example, fell to an annual rate of just 735,000, the slowest pace in 11 years.

By region, the government report showed that sales of new homes surged 37.7 percent in the West, a highly suspect rebound given what was happening in the jumbo-loan market, especially in the West. Sales were also up a tiny 0.5 percent in the South, but fell 19.5 percent in the Midwest and 6.6 percent in the Northeast.

The report on new-home sales stood in contrast to a variety of other statistics showing that housing, which has been slumping since late 2005, was battered anew this summer when lenders started tightening loan conditions in the face of rising mortgage delinquencies. For instance, the National Association of Realtors reported Wednesday that sales of existing homes fell a record 8 percent last month.

The report on home sales showed that the median new-home price in September - the point where half the homes sold for more and half for less - rose to $238,000, up 2.5 percent from August, when prices fell to the lowest level in nearly a year.