IT'S not a silver lining. But at least the numbers are headed in the right direction.
That's the best that can be said about the recent National Association of Realtors report that more people bought previously-owned homes in November, the third increase in four months. It's an encouraging sign for an industry that is so pivotal to many others, such as appliances, furniture, and contracting. But it follows the worst summer for sales in more than a decade.
Buyers purchased homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.68 million units in November, the association said. But 2010 probably still ended up as the worst year for sales since 1997. A normal level for U.S. home sales is about 6 million a year.
The housing report suggests that the nagging economic downturn, a recession that technically ended 18 months ago, may be nowhere near a conclusion. Economists are raising hopes on several other fronts - retail sales, industrial production, and unemployment claims - but this key indicator appears to be nowhere near a turnaround.
David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's, told the Financial Times: "We thought housing would bottom in 2010, but it looks like it will take another year." Analysts who expected a housing recovery in 2010 now figure that prices will decline this year by as much as 10 percent. That reflects the record number of distressed properties on the market that are chasing weak demand.
Sales of existing homes could drop even further in 2011, according to Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight. He said a housing resurgence may not come until 2014.
Nor will the situation be helped by mortgage interest rates that are beginning to tick up.
Washington is seemingly out of new economic stimulus plans, short of the tax-cut package President Obama and Congress just approved.
So it will take at least some added jingle in consumers' pockets, a stronger outlook on jobs, and other economic improvements to boost the confidence of Americans to buy more homes.