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Sales of existing homes are finishing 1997 at a record pace and economists are looking for next year to be nearly as good.

Single-family homes sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.38 million units in November, the National Association of Realtors said Monday. That's just 0.2 percent lower than October's 4.39 million rate -- the best since the group began tracking sales in 1968.

The association projected sales for all of 1997 will total 4.31 million, also the best in 29 years, and forecast 4.09 million sales in 1998.

The median price of an existing home -- meaning half sold for more and half for less -- was $124,400 in November, up 6 percent from a year ago.

By region, sales fell 2.7 percent in the Midwest to a seasonally adjusted 1.09 million units in November and 1.6 percent in the Northeast to a rate of 630,000 units. Sales were unchanged in the West at a rate of 990,000 units. They rose 1.8 percent in the South to 1.67 million units.

Thirty-year, fixed-rate mortgages averaged 7.21 percent in November, the lowest in 21 months. They fell to about 7.1 percent this month as skittish investors fled Asian turmoil for the safety of U.S. government securities.

Economist David Lereah of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America said rates could slip a bit further early next year before rising modestly.

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