A couple of rearview indicators from the National Association of Realtors show tough times continue in existing-home sales and within commercial real estate, but the trade group seems a tad more optimistic about the former than the latter.

Sales of existing single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops dipped 0.4% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.89 million units in January from an upwardly revised level of 4.91 million in December-that's 23.4% below the prior January.

"Subprime loans and other risky mortgage products have virtually disappeared from the marketplace," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun, "and over the past five months this has been reflected in soft but fairly stable home sales." But he believes that boosting limits for FHA and conventional loans will give buyers greater access to safer FHA loans and lower interest rate loans in high-cost areas, which could jumpstart home sales later this year.

Nationally, the median existing-home price for all housing types was $201,100 in January, down 4.6% from $210,900 a year ago. Because the slowdown in sales is greater in high-cost markets, there is a downward pull to the national median from a year ago when there were relatively more sales in higher priced areas.

But real estate is regional, and such markets as Buffalo, Peoria and Amarillo have seen healthy price gains.

The breakdown of existing-home figures on a regional basis:

·     Midwest-sales were up 3.4% in January; sales dropped 20% and the median price slumped 4%, to $154,000, from the prior year.

·     South-sales fell 0.5% in January; sales sank 22% and the median price dipped 5.9%, to $164,300, from the prior year.

·     West-sales dipped 2.1% in January; sales dive-bombed 28.5% and the median price was down 6.7%, to $300,100, from the prior year.

·     Northeast-sales fell 3.6% in January; sales plunged 25.7% but the median price rose 3.1%, to $270,800, from the prior year.

Total housing inventory rose 5.5% at the end of January, to 4.19 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 10.3-month supply at the current sales pace, up from a 9.7-month supply in December. 

Meanwhile, the NAR's Commercial Leading Indicator for Brokerage Activity slipped 0.4% to an index of 120.1 in the fourth quarter from a reading of 120.6 in the third quarter, but remains 0.1 above the fourth quarter 2006 reading of 119.9. 

This marked the index's second consecutive quarterly dip after reaching a record of 120.7 in the second quarter of 2007, and after it ran off nine consecutive quarterly gains prior to these declines.

"The decline in the index implies that commercial activity as measured by net absorption and the completion of new commercial buildings," Yun said, "is likely to contract moderately over the next six to nine months, which is consistent with an expectation for slower overall economic expansion in upcoming quarters."

The Commercial Leading Indicator implies weakening activity for commercial leasing and building sales activity. "Commercial practitioners can anticipate a weaker, though positive, net absorption in the office and industrial sectors later in the year with fewer new commercial buildings reaching the market," Yun added.