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Philadelphia Tax: What tax credit did for market

Economist Patrick Newport recently described home sales as riding "a two-hill roller coaster" because of the now-expired tax credits.

He and other economists, both in and outside the housing industry, say they believe that sales will lag awhile as a result of the federal credits' pushing back to March and April transactions that might otherwise have occurred in May and through the summer.

So far, their assessment appears correct. Appointments to look at houses are down at many real estate offices - 44 percent lower, according to Long & Foster regional vice president Art Herling.

"It sure made a mess of May," said Long & Foster agent Cheryl Miller. "Things just about ground to a halt."

On the other hand, South Jersey home builder Bruce Paparone said May was almost as good as April and March were.

"It may be the tail end of the domino effect from the initial sale created by the tax credit," Paparone said. "Our market is typically the move-up buyer, who may be further down the line in the process than a first-time existing-home purchaser."

Given the consensus that there's no chance of another tax credit, it's time to assess what long-term effect the two rounds of incentives might have had on the sluggish housing market.

Among the results of the rush for the tax credits: competition for more-desirable homes, which helped accelerate median-price recovery.

Though the national median is nowhere near the heady levels of 2004-06, prices have been slowly rebounding to what industry experts like to call "normal."

The fact that prices have been rising means, according to Newport, a reduction in "the number of homes that will fall into foreclosure."

The four-year price free fall pushed about 25 percent of U.S. houses "under water," meaning that more money is owed on them than they are worth.

With predictions of even more foreclosures this year and a resulting increase in cut-rate bank-owned properties for sale, even a slow shift the other way is definitely a side benefit of the tax credits.

Their success seemed to ease the concerns of homeowners looking to trade up or down, but too afraid of taking a financial bath by putting their houses on the market.

This is not the so-called "shadow market" of potential sellers that economists feared would torpedo a recovery, just a handful of them.

For-sale inventory rose in April to an 8.4-month level, meaning that, at the current rate, it would take that long to sell the 4.04 million units on the market.

Six months is considered the goal, one that's getting closer in many markets because of the tax credits.

Four years of price declines and low fixed mortgage rates combined to make houses more affordable - if you had a job that allowed you to buy.

"Now that the tax credit is over, we are seeing record price reductions" by sellers, Herling said. "These price reductions are three to four times more than the tax credit" - $8,000 for qualified first-time buyers; $6,500 maximum for some repeat buyers.

Buyers who waited until after the tax-credit deadline might gain from these reductions. Sellers who held out for higher prices while the tax credits were in place are much more willing to negotiate now or lower their prices.

"We are seeing hundreds of 5 percent to 20 percent price reductions," Herling said. "The buyers who waited until now may get the best deals of all."

Though the tax credits were expensive, most in the housing industry believe they were necessary.

Said Prudential Fox & Roach's Joanne Davidow: "If buyers were encouraged to buy because of the tax credit and knew they had a limited time to do so, then it was, in fact, a genuine stimulus."
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