Home-purchase contracts fall 5.5 pct. from March to April

The number of contracts signed for existing-home purchases fell 5.5 percent in April from March, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday, but remained 14.4 percent above the same month in 2011.

Realtors chief economist Lawrence Yun dismissed the importance of a single month’s decline, even though it came during the peak selling season for residential real estate.

"Home contract activity has been above year-ago levels now for 12 consecutive months," Yun said, adding that "the housing recovery momentum continues."

In the eight-county Philadelphia region, Prudential Fox & Roach HomExpert Report recorded a drop in contracts of just 2.5 percent in April from March. Agreements in April were 14.1 percent above the same month in 2011.

The biggest decline in contracts, which are typically closed within 45 to 60 days of signing, came in the West. The West encompasses three states with the largest percentages of distressed properties over the last few years: California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Although sales of properties in some stage of foreclosure in these states remain a high percentage of total transactions, year-over-year increases in foreclosures were small, according to the search engine RealtyTrac, and fewer were available for sale, so contracts decreased.

Distressed housing accounts for smaller percentages of total sales in Pennsylvania and New Jersey than in many of the harder-hit states.

The national average was 26 percent of all sales.

Foreclosure-related transactions accounted for just 14.3 percent of first-quarter home sales in Pennsylvania, and 10.2 percent in New Jersey, RealtyTrac said.

By foreclosure-related sales, RealtyTrac means houses that were repossessed by lenders through foreclosure, and short sales, in which a bank accepts less than the mortgage balance.

The average first-quarter foreclosure sale price in Pennsylvania was $98,466 — 40 percent below that of a non-foreclosure home, while New Jersey’s was $203,999, or about 35 percent less than non-foreclosures.

Nationally, the average foreclosure sale price was $161,214, or about 27 percent less, RealtyTrac reported.

In Pennsylvania, the smaller percentage of distressed properties in the sales mix appears to have contributed to the 0.2 percent first-quarter increase in the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s home-price index that excludes refinancings.

The Philadelphia metro area saw a 1.3 percent drop in that index from the first three months of the year, while New Jersey’s fell 4 percent.

The rate of decline has "steadily diminished over the last two quarters," the FHFA reported last week.

Short sales nationally reached a three-year high in the first quarter to nearly half of all distressed sales, which experts attributed to the desire of lenders to find ways of getting out of bad mortgages without the expense of a foreclosure.

"Lenders are approving more aggressively priced short sales, which in turn is resulting in more successful short-sale transactions," said Brandon Moore, the RealtyTrac CEO.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or@alheavens at Twitter.