The numbers: The index of pending home sales dropped 21.8% in April compared to March as the coronavirus pandemic kept prospective home-buyers out of the market, the National Association of Realtors reported Thursday.
Compared with a year ago, pending home sales were down 33.8%. Overall, it was the largest decline since the National Association of Realtors began tracking this data in 2001.
The index measures real-estate transactions where a contract was signed but the sale had not yet closed, benchmarked to contract-signing activity in 2001. It is an indicator of existing-home sales reports in the coming months.
What happened: The Northeast saw the biggest decline in contract signings, with a 48.2% plunge month over month — likely a reflection of the emergence of New York as one of the hot spots for the global coronavirus pandemic. The South saw the next largest decrease, followed by the West and the Midwest.
The rates of declines in April were lower in the Midwest, South and West compared to the declines in March.
Big picture: Stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus put a major dent in the number of contracts that were signed in April, which could preview a significant drop in home sales figures in months to come.
The good news for the market, though, is that sales activity has shown signs of a rebound. “In the coming months, buying activity will rise as states reopen and more consumers feel comfortable about homebuying in the midst of the social distancing measures,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors.
Mortgage applications for loans used to purchase homes have increased on a weekly basis for six consecutive weeks now, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. That’s a sign that buyers are lining up financing in order to march into the housing market.
The remaining question is whether sellers will follow. “Home sales could bounce back if sellers also enter the market with similar enthusiasm to buyers,” said Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com. “Our latest weekly data shows an improvement in new listings declines, but inventory levels still remain well below levels seen this time last year.”
If the number of homes on the market remains constrained, so too will the number of sales, regardless of buyers’ demand.
What they’re saying: “Mortgage applications for purchases have fully unwound their previous plunge, suggesting sales are rebounding in May,” Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, wrote in a research note. “The housing sector seems to be weathering the crisis about as well as could be expected, even if it will take a long time before sales return to pre-virus levels given the massive job losses.”
Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 were both up slightly in Thursday morning trading despite the downturn in pending home sales. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was flat.