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Homebuilders outlook dips below 4-year high

Updated: April 16, 2012 9:44AM



WASHINGTON — The outlook among U.S. homebuilders dimmed in April after six months of rising or steady confidence. The decline suggests the housing market remains weak despite modest gains.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo said Monday that its builder sentiment index fell this month to 25 from 28. Last month’s reading was the highest since June 2007. The index rose for five straight months between September and February.

Builders expressed weaker confidence in sales over the next six months. A separate gauge measuring that outlook rose for six straight months before falling this month, from 35 to 32.

The housing industry has a long way to go in its slow recovery. Any reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market. The index hasn’t reached hit that level since April 2006, the peak of the housing boom.

“What we’re seeing is essentially a pause in what had been a fairly rapid build-up in builder confidence that started last September,” said David Crowe, chief economist with the homebuilders’ group. “This is partly because interest expressed by buyers in the past few months has yet to translate into expected sales activity.”

The spring buying season got an early start thanks to a mild January and February, which made up the best winter for sales of previously occupied homes in five years. Permits to build houses and apartments rose in February to their highest level since 2008.

Yet home prices continued to fall this winter. Builders keep slashing their prices to stay competitive. Last year was the worst for new-home sales on records dating back to 1963.

Builders are struggling to compete with foreclosures, which have forced down prices of previously occupied homes. And many people are finding it hard to qualify for loans or meet higher required down payments.

Low appraisals are scuttling some deals after contracts have been signed. As a result, some people who want to buy a new house are holding off because they can’t sell their home.

Those in a position to buy are benefiting from lower prices and the cheapest mortgage rates on record. The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage is hovering near record lows below 4 percent.

Builders have pointed to some regional pockets of strength. New Orleans, Pittsburgh and other smaller areas of Texas, in particular, have reported increased buying.



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