Homebuilders remain in a state of suspended negative animation, and most of them believe their situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. The homebuilders’ sentiment index posted at 14 for September. It has ranged between 13 and 17 for the past year. Fifty is the split between optimism and pessimism, so there is a long way to go before sentiment changes.

At least the decline in housing starts appears to be moderating. Starts posted at an annual rate of 571,000 units in August, a 5-percent drop from July's numbers. Many media outlets blamed weather – Hurricane Irene in the Northwest and South – for the decline. The good news is that permits for future construction were up 3.2 percent, suggesting a slight improvement for starts in September and possibly beyond.In contrast, existing-home sales showed significant improvement, surging 7.7 percent to an annual rate of 5.03 million units in August. The burst in sales drew supply down by 3 percent to 3.577 million units, dropping supply to 8.5 months from 9.5 months in July.

It appears some additional discounting and bargain hunting among investors was occurring in the existing-home market. The median sales price fell 1.7 percent to $168,300 in August, while the average price slumped 1.6 percent to $216,800. Investors accounted for 22 percent of sales, up from 18 percent in July. This suggests to us that foreclosed properties are being absorbed and taken off the market.Despite the August decline in median and average existing-home prices, we remain convinced the worst is over, though our optimism remains tempered. We are not expecting a surge in home prices any time soon; then again, neither are most housing experts. MacroMarkets surveyed 111 experts and the consensus is for prices to grow at a 1.1-percent annual rate through 2015. It's not a growth rate to get excited over, to be sure; then again, it's not a negative growth rate either.

We are also not expecting a surge in mortgage rates. In fact, rates continue to set new multi-decade lows. As you may have heard, the Federal Reserved announced it will start buying longer-term US Treasury and mortgage-backed securities. The goal is for the Fed to purchase $400 billion worth of securities with maturities between 6 and 30 years by June 2012 in order to further lower long-term borrowing rates.This means low mortgage rates will be with us for a while. The 30-year fixed-rated mortgage is usually priced two to two-and-half percentage points above the yield on the 10-year Treasury note. The yield on that security tumbled to a mere 1.75 percent on Wednesday. Some 30-year mortgage loans are already being quoted below 4 percent.