The housing market ended the year on a positive note with strong sales in December, but a glut of unsold homes will likely push prices lower through much of this year, forecasters said Friday.
Sales of existing homes hit an 11-month high last month and the number of properties on the market fell to the lowest level in nearly seven years, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Unseasonably warm weather may have helped boost sales, but analysts said a strengthening job market and record low mortgage rates should buoy housing in coming months. Still, they were troubled by the high level of "distressed homes" for sale, including short sales of underwater properties or sales of foreclosed properties. Nearly one-third of existing-home sales were distressed last month, according to the Realtors.
In addition, one-third of Realtors said home sales fell through last month because of declined mortgage applications or appraisals that fell short of the required values.
"These strong negative undercurrents in the housing market and absence of support from strong labor market conditions will continue to trim home sales in the near term," said Asha Bangalore, economist at Northern Trust Co.
The median sale price for an existing home in December was $162,500, down 2.5 percent from December 2010. For the full year, the median price for existing homes fell nearly 4 percent.
"Home sales will gradually improve in 2012. ... However, prices will continue to decline in the near term, despite the better sales," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist of PNC. He pointed out that many home foreclosures are stuck in the pipeline due to paperwork issues and will pressure home prices in the year to come.
"The market for single-family homes picked up in the second half of 2011, after being stuck near the bottom for nearly three years," said economist Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight. "This pickup is real, but the road to recovery will be a slow one."
While the home sales pace was a touch below economists' expectations, December marked the third straight month of gains, adding to hopes that a tentative recovery was taking shape.
But a glut of unsold properties that is weighing down on prices and stringent lending practices by banks is likely to make progress painfully slow.
There were 2.38 million unsold homes on the market last month, the fewest since March 2005. That represented a 6.2 months' supply at December's sales pace, the lowest since April 2006 and down from a 7.2 months' supply in November.
The Realtors group noted, however, that the inventory of unsold homes tends to decline in winter.
Data earlier this week showed single-family home starts rose for a third straight month in December and optimism among builders this month was the highest in four-and-a-half years.
"It is very encouraging that the current phase of the recovery is being driven by economic fundamentals as opposed to being fostered by temporary stimulus," said Millan Mulraine, a senior macro strategist at TD Securities in New York.