Pending home sales in the eight-county Philadelphia area fell 14.7 percent in March from February, a downward trend that has been nearly uninterrupted since the subprime-mortgage meltdown began in August 2007.
By contrast, national pending sales rose 3.2 percent in March, thanks to huge numbers of foreclosure and short sales in the West and Florida at prices discounted as much as 50 percent, the National Association of Realtors reported yesterday. It was the second consecutive monthly gain in pending sales.
"A tsunami it is not, but there seems to be growing interest in buying a house," said Joel L. Naroff, TD Bank N.A.'s chief economist.
In this region, and the Northeastern United States generally, foreclosure and short sales - those in which the lender agrees to accept less than the balance owed on the mortgage - account for a small percentage of sales.
But in the West, especially in Arizona, Nevada, and Southern Calfornia, they account for about 80 percent of home sales, economists say.
A sale is listed as pending when a contract has been signed but the transaction has not yet closed.
According to Prudential Fox & Roach HomExpert, which provides the local figures, pending sales in the Philadelphia region in March were 23.6 percent below the same month in 2008. Nationally, they were 1.1 percent higher than March 2008.
The real estate firm measures pending home sales with an index that is adjusted for seasonal variations. Although the index fell in March, the actual number of pending sales increased. Based on that rise, the index for April should be more positive, said Steve Storti, Prudential Fox & Roach senior vice president.
Nationally, there has been a tendency since the beginning of this year to read every positive sign in housing as signaling the end of the industry downturn. But NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said, "We need several months of sustained growth to demonstrate a recovery in housing, which is necessary for the overall economy to turn around."
The economy has been in a recession since December 2007.
Historically, the housing market has led the economy into recoveries. Economist Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight Inc., of Lexington, Mass., said he believed a housing comeback would be noticeable in 2010-11.
So far, though, residential construction is not rebounding. The Commerce Department reported yesterday that while construction overall rose 0.03 percent in March from February, single-family building fell 8.6 percent - the 37th straight monthly drop.
Naroff said he believed a turnaround was near.
"I would not be surprised if by the summer, we are talking not about the housing market bottoming, but what the upturn will look like," he said.
Area Pending Home Sales
Figures in the table are an index, based on a 2002 level of 100.
County Feb. March Percentage change
Bucks 61.9 56.0 -9.5
Burlington 49.1 45.8 -6.7
Camden 54.5 42.7 -21.7
Chester 57.4 47.5 -17.2
Delaware 72.7 51.4 -29.3
Gloucester 56.5 54.7 -3.2
Montgomery 62.0 53.7 -13.4
Philadelphia 82.4 72.4 -12.1
8-counties 64.5 55.0 -14.7
Source: Prudential Fox & Roach HomExpert
Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or email@example.com.