WASHINGTON - Home prices rose for a fourth straight month in most major U.S. cities in July, buoyed by the peak buying season. But the housing market remains depressed, and prices are expected to decline in the coming months.
The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index released Tuesday showed home prices increased in July from June in 17 of the 20 cities tracked.
Prices rose sharply in Minneapolis and Chicago. Prices in two cities hit hardest by the housing crisis — Las Vegas and Phoenix — declined.
The index measures prices compared with those in January 2000 and creates a three-month moving average. The July data is the latest available.
Analysts cautioned that the price increases are temporary, and not evidence of a housing recovery. Home sales have declined in each of the months in which prices rose.
Prices are expected to drop again this fall and winter, based on the poor sales and expectations that banks will resume processing a raft of foreclosures that have been in limbo.
"This is still a seasonal period of stronger demand for houses, so monthly price increases are expected," said David M. Blitzer, chairman of Standard & Poor's index committee. "While we have now seen four consecutive months of generally increasing prices, we do know that we are still far from a sustained recovery."
Over the past 12 months, prices have fallen in all but two cities: Detroit and Washington.
In Detroit, prices have risen 1.2 per cent during that stretch. Still, the city has been among the nation's worst housing markets over the past decade. In July, homes prices there were equal to 1995 levels.
Washington, conversely, has had the nation's best housing market. Home prices in the nation's capital have increased 0.3 per cent in those 12 months, and were equal to 2004 levels in July.
Housing is a key reason the economy has struggled more than two years after the recession officially ended.
High unemployment, larger required down payments and tighter credit are preventing many buyers from entering the market. Many who could afford to buy are waiting because they are worried the U.S. could fall back into another recession and prices could fall further.
Sales of previously occupied homes are only slightly ahead of last year, which was the weakest since 1997.
New-home sales dropped in August for a fourth straight month. This year is shaping up to be the worst for sales of new homes on records dating back to 1963.
And home prices are certain to fall further once banks resume millions of foreclosures, which have been delayed because of a 10-month government investigation into mortgage lending practices.
"This effect will fade soon because sales have dropped back in recent months," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics. "We expect to see price declines again by the autumn but we do not anticipate a renewed collapse."