US new home sales pick up speed

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Vacant home for sale in Yonkers, New York
Image caption,
Sales of new homes remain subdued thanks to a glut of repossessed houses on the market

Sales of new homes in the US rose 6.6% in September to a seasonally-adjusted annualised rate of 307,000.

The figure beat market expectations of a rise to just 300,000.

However, the rate is still 21.5% below the level of a year ago and near historic lows.

Meanwhile, the US Treasury's head of housing said that an investigation into faulty foreclosure documentation may hold up the sale of thousands of repossessed houses for months.

'Questions of legality'

"This would hurt homeowners and home buyers alike at a time when foreclosed homes make up 25% of home sales," Phyllis Caldwell, chief of the Treasury's Homeownership Preservation Office, told the Congressional Oversight Panel in prepared testimony.

"Together, these two factors may exert downward pressure on overall housing prices both in the short and long-run."

She said that the investigation would delay the sale of thousands of vacant homes, and may also raise question markets over the legal ownership status of other foreclosed properties, making their sale more difficult.

"The issues that have been alleged raise significant questions about the accuracy, fairness and even legality of several mortgage processes," she said.

Earlier this month, attorneys general in all 50 of the country's states announced a joint investigation into the process of repossessing homes from defaulted mortgage borrowers.

The investigation was launched after it emerged that the mortgage service companies employed by the banks may have provided fraudulent documentation to the courts.

The affected lenders include JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America.

Prices fall

Sales of new homes in the US reported by the Census Bureau have remained particularly subdued during the economic recovery thanks to a glut of repossessed houses on the market.

Moreover, sales of both new and existing homes fell sharply again in the summer, following the expiry in April of a tax credit for homebuyers.

The actual number of homes sold in September - at about 24,000 - is a record low for the month, beating the previous record set in 1981.

"While the number, on the face of it, is slightly better than expectations, the general level is still so moribund that the basic message coming through is the extremely depressed state of the housing market is continuing," said Robert Tipp, chief investment strategist at Prudential in New Jersey.

Earlier in the week, data from rating agency Standard and Poor's showed that US house prices also began falling again in August, mainly in response to the expired tax credit.

Prices are likely to continue to fall as the number of unsold houses remains high.

Current unsold new homes represent about eight months of supply, according to economist Bill McBride, well above their historic norm of about five months.

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