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Friday, September 26, 2008

Home prices fell 5.3 pct in July, government says

WASHINGTON – Sept. 24, 2008 – Nationwide home prices in July fell a record 5.3 percent compared with a year ago, a government agency said Tuesday, and have now receded to October 2005 levels.

Prices were down 0.6 percent from June on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The national decline in home values coupled with reckless lending standards during the real estate boom are the driving forces behind rising mortgage defaults and foreclosures. They have spurred a credit crisis that has shaken Wall Street to its core and caused the Bush administration to propose a $700 billion financial industry bailout.

The real estate industry expects more weak news Wednesday when the National Association of Realtors releases existing home sales for August.

The housing agency’s director, James Lockhart, suggested Tuesday that mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could loosen lending standards to help more homebuyers qualify for a loan and stabilize the market. The government took control of Fannie and Freddie earlier this month.

“I expect any changes to reflect both safe and sound business strategy and attentiveness to the (companies’) mission,” Lockhart said Tuesday in testimony prepared for a Senate Banking Committee hearing. He also said that modifying loans for troubled borrowers should be a “high priority.”

Over the past year, the companies have tightened requirements and raised fees substantially, making it hard for borrowers with any blemish on their credit reports to qualify for a loan.

Lockhart explained the government had little option but to seize control of Fannie and Freddie. Both companies, he said, were unable to raise money to gird against losses without aid from the government.

Without new money, the only other option was to stop doing new business and shed assets in a weak market. “That would have been disastrous for the mortgage markets and mortgage rates would have continued to move higher,” Lockhart said.

But rates are creeping back up.

The national average rate on a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage rose to 6.26 percent on Monday up from 6.11 percent on Friday as details of the government’s rescue plan remained in flux, according to financial publisher HSH Associates. The rate had fallen as low as 5.87 percent last Tuesday.

“The crash of other financial assets has made folks rather uncomfortable,” said Keith Gumbinger, a senior vice president with HSH Associates. “It’s not about keeping Fannie and Freddie afloat any more.”

Higher interest rates and falling home prices are also hurting the building industry.

Lennar Corp., one of the nation’s largest homebuilders, said Tuesday its third-quarter loss narrowed as it cut costs, but revenue fell by more than half amid a prolonged housing slump.

The Miami-based company’s loss for the quarter ended Aug. 31 was $89 million, or 56 cents a share, compared with a loss of $513.9 million, or $3.25 a share a year ago.

Revenue fell 53 percent to $1.11 billion from $2.34 billion.

Chief Executive Stuart Miller said his management team is not projecting a material improvement in the housing market “for some time to come,” adding that the housing market has yet to hit bottom.

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