Sales of previously owned U.S. homes dropped in March by the most since November 2015, representing weaker demand that likely is going to get much worse in coming months as the pandemic bears down on the economy.
Contract closings declined 8.5% from the prior month to an annualized 5.27 million, the slowest since April 2019, from a downwardly revised 5.76 million in February, according to National Association of Realtors data released Tuesday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 5.25 million rate in March.
Business closures and stay-at-home orders that began taking effect mid-month have led to listing delays and caused buyers to postpone purchases. The market may stabilize later this year on the heels of lower borrowing costs and as Americans return to work.
“Based on what we are seeing at the moment, don’t be surprised if the sales activity could be down as much as 30% or even 40% in the next couple of months,” Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, said on a call with reporters.
The median sales price increased 8% in March from a year earlier to $280,600. So far, selling prices are holding up even as sales decline because of a lean number of listings, Yun said.
Available inventory was down 10.2% from a year earlier. At the current pace, it would take 3.4 months to sell all the homes on the market. Realtors see anything below five months of supply as a sign of a tight market.
The first half of the month “held up reasonably well, but it was the second half of March where we are seeing a measurable decline in activity,” Yun said. Many potential home sellers are delaying listing their properties in the current economic environment, he noted.
Purchases dropped in all four U.S. regions. They slumped 13.6% in the West, declined 9.1% in the South and fell 3.1% in the Midwest. Northeast sales decreased 7.1%.
Single-family home sales decreased 8.1% to 4.74 million units, also the slowest pace since April 2019.
Existing-home sales account for about 90% of U.S. housing and are calculated when a contract closes. New-home sales, which make up the remainder, are based on contract signings and will be released Thursday.