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Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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U.S. house-price decline accelerates, but not here

Bloomberg News

Declines in home prices in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas accelerated in the 12 months ended in February, a private survey showed Tuesday.

Values fell 1 percent from February 2006 after dropping 0.1 percent in the year ended in January, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index. January's decrease was the first since the group started keeping year-over-year records in 2001.

Slow demand has left a glut of homes for sale on the market that's forcing sellers to reduce prices, economists said. A rise in foreclosures may add to the number of unsold homes, suggesting prices will be slow to rebound and housing will continue to limit economic growth.

"There's just too much inventory of unsold homes, and simple supply and demand says that prices will have to come down," said Lindsey Piegza, a market analyst at FTN Financial in New York. "We expect prices to be under continued downward pressure for a while."

Sales of previously owned homes declined more than forecast last month to the lowest level in almost four years, the National Association of Realtors also said Tuesday. Purchases dropped 8.4 percent last month, the most since 1989, to an annual rate of 6.12 million.

In the central Puget Sound region, March home sales were down 12 percent compared with a year earlier, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. This includes house and condominium sales in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties.

In King County alone, sales were down 8 percent last month compared with the previous March.

Local prices, however, continued to climb, rising 9.5 percent year over year in King County, 16.1 percent in Snohomish County, 5.8 percent in Pierce County and 10.2 percent in Kitsap County, the MLS reported.

The Conference Board reported that consumer confidence declined to the lowest level in eight months in April. The share of Americans who plan to buy a home in the next six months fell to 2.7 percent, the lowest since November 2004.

The median home price (half sold for more, half less) edged down for the eighth-straight month, to $217,000, off 0.3 percent from March of last year.

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Slower home sales, higher gas prices and consumer pessimism pose threats to the overall economy, warns Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors.

"We don't have a bottom in housing; we don't have a top in gas prices," he said. "That doesn't bode well for growth going forward."

A rise in mortgage defaults and rising foreclosures among subprime borrowers, or those with poor or limited credit histories, will cause U.S. home prices to fall this year for the first time on record, the National Association of Realtors said earlier this month.

Local figures provided by Seattle Times real-estate reporter Elizabeth Rhodes. Material from USA Today was used in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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