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Sales of existing homes fall by largest amount in nearly 2 decades

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    WASHINGTON - Sales of existing homes plunged in March by the largest amount in nearly two decades, reflecting bad weather and increasing problems in the subprime mortgage market, a real estate trade group reported Tuesday.

The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of existing homes fell by 8.4 percent in March, compared to February. It was the biggest one-month decline since a 12.6 percent plunge in January 1989, another period of recession conditions in housing.

The drop left sales in March at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.12 million units, the slowest pace since June 2003.

The steep sales decline was accompanied by an eighth straight fall in median home prices, the longest such period of falling prices on record. The median price fell to $217,000, a drop of 0.3 percent from the price a year ago.

The fall in sales in March was bigger than had been expected and it dashed hopes that housing was beginning to mount a recovery after last year's big slump. That slowdown occurred after five years in which sales of both existing and new homes had set records.

David Lereah, chief economist at the Realtors, attributed the big drop in part to bad weather in February, which discouraged shoppers and meant that sales that closed in March would be lower. Existing home sales are counted when the sales are closed.

Lereah said that the troubles in mortgage lending were also playing a significant part in depressing sales. Lenders have tightened standards with the rising delinquencies in mortgages especially in the subprime market, where borrowers with weak credit histories obtained their loans.

Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., said the dismal March performance reflected in part better sales in January and February, which were driven by warmer-than-normal temperatures in the previous months.

"This looks awful but it is surely just a reversal of the favorable weather effects which boosted January and February sales," he said.

There was weakness in every part of the country in March. Sales fell by 10.9 percent in the Midwest. They were down 9.1 percent in the West, 8.2 percent in the Northeast and 6.2 percent in the South.

"The negative impact of subprime is considerable," Lereah said. "I expect sales to be sluggish in April, May and June."

Lereah said he didn't expect a full recovery in housing until 2008. He predicted that sales of existing homes would drop by about 3 percent this year with the decline in sales of new homes an even steeper 15 percent.

He said that the median price for homes sold in 2007 would fall by 1 percent to 3 percent, which would be the first price decline for an entire year on the Realtors' records, which go back four decades.

The steep slump in housing over the past year has been a major factor slowing the overall economy. It has subtracted around 1 percentage point from growth since mid-2006.

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