The data on housing were mixed this past week, but we would say that, for the most part, they listed more positively than negatively.

Last Friday, the NAR reported sales of existing homes rose 5 percent to an annual rate of 4.61 units in December. This marked the third-consecutive month of sales growth. This latest increase helped reduce inventory to 2.38 million units, the equivalent of a 6.2 month supply at December's sales pace.

Pricing was the one bugaboo in the NAR's data. The median price for an existing home was $166,100 for 2011, a 2.5 percent drop from 2010 and the lowest median price since 2002. This is a disappointment, but hardly a disaster. We’ve said many times that national numbers usually lack a meaningful connection to local markets.

The news on distressed properties was a little more encouraging. RealtyTrac reports that homes in some stage of foreclosure dropped 11 percent in the third quarter of 2011 compared to the previous quarter. Of course, part of the improvement is due to the ongoing matter of banks working through last year's auto-signing imbroglio. That said, our own anecdotal evidence suggests an improving distressed-property market.

The new-home market is also improving, just not so obviously. New home sales eased 2.2 percent to an annual rate of 307,000 units in December, which pushed inventory up to a 6.1 month supply. Like existing-home prices, new-home prices were also pressured for the month, with the national median price dropping to $210,300.

Recent new-home data suggest that December's numbers might just be a hiccup: Homebuilder sentiment has improved markedly in recent months, as has the longer-term sales trend.

Speaking of trends, the trend in mortgage rates is expected to hold for the long term. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve stated that interest rates will remain low until at least through 2014, pushing back a previous date of mid-2013. According to Federal Reserve data, the economy simply isn't growing at the pace it had expected.

The impact of the Fed's revised policy was both immediate and palpable. Before the announcement, the 10-year Treasury note yield had been creeping higher and was yielding 2.06 percent just before Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke stepped up to the mike. After he had stepped down, the yield had dropped to 1.96 percent.

So it appears low base mortgage rates are with us for the long term, but that doesn't mean low-cost mortgages are. A recent increase in fees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac charge lenders will push costs higher. Expect the fee increase to raise borrowing costs a quarter percentage point.

It's worth pointing out that we said “appears” in connection with low mortgage rates. Nothing is certain where the economy and investor behavior is concerned. To be sure, if we were forced to place a bet, we’d likely bet on January 2013 mortgage rates matching January 2012 rates. We suspect most everyone else would place that same bet. That fact, in and of itself, is a contrarian indicator that rates aren't necessarily destined to stay at today's levels. 

Courtesy of Jessica Regan.

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