If you like a lot of froth with your real estate, you will enjoy the federal government's latest numbers on appreciation in American home...

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If you like a lot of froth with your real estate, you will enjoy the federal government’s latest numbers on appreciation in American home values.

But if you’ve been expecting the boom to fizzle any day now and you’re convinced that double-digit appreciation rates just can’t keep going, you might need to push back your bubble-bust timeline. That’s the upshot of the latest quarterly data on 265 major real estate markets compiled by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, which tracks home-price changes nationwide.

From the first quarter of 2004 through the same period this year, the average home in the U.S. appreciated by a near-record 12.5 percent.

Some local markets were as hot or hotter in the 12-month survey period than they have been in decades.

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The entire state of California, noted for its high-cost real estate, saw an average gain of 25.4 percent a house. That is a stunning jump of close to 2 percent a month, often on homes priced at $1 million and above.

Houses in Nevada, although nowhere near as expensive as those in California, gained an extraordinary 31.2 percent on average in the 12 months, the federal agency found.

Three other states and the District of Columbia saw average home values increase more than 20 percent: Maryland grew 21 percent; Florida, 21.4 percent; District of Columbia, 22.2 percent; and Hawaii, 24.4 percent.

A near-record 43 metropolitan areas had average appreciation rates at or above 20 percent, and three — Las Vegas and Reno, Nev., and Palm Bay-Melbourne, Fla. — topped 30 percent.

None of the 265 metropolitan areas in the federal study experienced net declines in values, and every state gained at least 3.1 percent, the national Consumer Price Index inflation rate for the year.

But not all the directional signals were positive in the latest numbers.

In fact, there are distinct hints that some of the zestiest markets may be slowing. None of the top 20 metropolitan gainers had an annualized quarterly rate that equaled or exceeded its appreciation rate for the year.

To illustrate: California’s price inflation rate during the first quarter of 2005 was 3.8 percent. Annualized — that is, multiplied by four — that’s 15.2 percent. That is still frothy, but nowhere near the 25.4 percent from the first quarter of 2004 through the first quarter of 2005.

Rhode Island had a 1.91 percent average gain in the first quarter of 2005. Annualized that comes to 7.64 percent. Compare that with the state’s 17.1 percent average gain for the 12 months covered by the federal study.

Similar directional shifts can be seen in dozens of other local areas. A few, in fact, appear to be heading into negative territory.

Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas, had a 5.2 percent average appreciation rate over the 12-month period. Yet the first-quarter annualized rate was a minus 8.6 percent.

Syracuse, N.Y., posted a 12-month rate of 6.8 percent, but its annualized first-quarter rate was a minus 3.5 percent.

What to make of all this?

The federal agency’s chief economist, Patrick Lawler, sees a “potential for declines in some areas” in the latest survey data, especially where there have been exceptional run-ups.

The chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, David Seiders, agrees. In fact, so do most mortgage and real-estate economists, whose common refrain was summed up by Seiders last week: “This is not sustainable, not at the levels we’ve been seeing.”

But Seiders and others are quick to point out that in wide swaths of the country — the Midwest and South-Central states in particular — real estate fever is not an issue. Housing values in dozens of local markets in those regions continue to appreciate steadily, much as they have for decades.

Buyers in the super-zesty markets along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, on the other hand, would be foolish not to ask the key questions: Where are we in the cycle here? How many more quarterly reports with 20 percent gains can we expect? Can local employment and income growth support price increases that steadily squeeze larger numbers of potential buyers out of the game?

Nobody in the federal government has the answer for you. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan would be the first to admit it.

But historically, high double-digit gains haven’t continued in any market for many years. They burn themselves out, slow down, deflate, correct — and yes, sometimes lose money for the last buyers onboard.

Kenneth R. Harney: kenharney@earthlink.net