WASHINGTON -- Home sales in December reached their highest pace in nearly a year, adding weight to other signs that the troubled housing market improved at the end of 2011.
Analysts cautioned that sales remain historically low and that it will take years for the home market to return to full health.
Still, the third consecutive monthly sales increase was encouraging. And economists noted that conditions are in place for further gains this year -- prices have declined, mortgage rates have never been lower, home builders are slightly more hopeful because more people are saying they might be open to buying this year, and home construction picked up in the final quarter of last year.
"There's no denying that home sales are still very low and will remain low for a few years," said Paul Dales, an economist with Capital Economics. "But after having risen in each of the last three months ... it is clear that a housing recovery is now well under way."
Sales of previously occupied homes rose 5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.61 million in December, the National Association of Realtors said Friday. It's the best level since January 2011.
For all of 2011, sales totaled only 4.26 million, up slightly from 4.19 million in 2010, but far below the 6 million that economists equate with healthy housing markets. In 2005, at the peak of the boom, 7.1 million homes were sold.
Locally, the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors has said it expects sales volume for 2011 to rise by at least 6 percent over 2010. That gain was tempered by a projected drop in prices of about 3 percent, which was attributed to foreclosed homes and other so-called distressed properties.
Preliminary numbers show that 9,276 residences in the region changed hands at a median price of $181,573 last year.
At the local and national level, hiring has improved, which is critical to a housing rebound. Fewer people sought unemployment benefits last week than at any time in nearly four years, evidence of far fewer layoffs.
The unemployment rate fell in December to its lowest level in nearly three years.
With layoffs slowing sharply, hiring rising and consumers' confidence rebounding, the pre-conditions for a sustained recovery are falling into place, said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics. "
Sales and starts will keep rising; prices should stabilize, more or less."
The median sales price of a previously occupied home ticked up 0.3 percent from November to December, to $164,500. Also, the supply of homes has declined, though it still is historically high at 2.38 million.