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December home prices increase by most since 2006

NEW YORK -- Home prices in 20 U.S. cities rose in the 12 months to December by the most in more than six years, a sign the housing-market recovery is strengthening.

For San Diego, the December 2012 price rose 1.07 percent from November's and was up 9.22 percent from December 2011.

The S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values increased 6.8 percent from December 2011, the biggest year-to-year gain since July 2006, after advancing 5.4 percent in November, a report showed Tuesday. Nineteen of 20 cities showed gains.

Near record-low borrowing costs and gains in employment are fueling demand and boosting property values as the number of houses on the market drops and foreclosures ease.

The improvement is shoring up household net worth and confidence, which may underpin consumer spending even as an increase in the payroll tax reduces take-home pay.

“The key here is it’s not as if we’re getting all the juice from one area, it’s broadly based across the country,” said Brian Jones, a senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York, who correctly projected the year-over-year increase.

“Rates are low, prices are attractive, so affordability is high, and the labor market is gradually healing as well. If you were in the market to buy a home, right now it’s a good time," he said.

Another report showed residential property values climbed 0.6 percent in December from the prior month, according to data from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).

They were up 5.5 percent in the fourth quarter from the same time a year earlier.

The S&P/Case-Shiller index is based on a three-month average, which means the December data were influenced by transactions in November and October.

The November reading was revised from a previously reported 5.5 percent gain.

Tuesday’s report also included quarterly national figures.

Prices covering all of the U.S. increased 7.3 percent in the fourth quarter from the same period in 2011, the most since the second quarter of 2006 and compared with a 3.6 percent gain in the year ended September.

They fell 0.3 percent from the previous three months before seasonal adjustment. The gauge climbed 2 percent after taking those changes into account.

Monthly change

Home prices adjusted for seasonal variations in the 20-city index climbed 0.9 percent in December from the prior month, compared with a 0.7 gain in November.

The month-over-month gain was led by Las Vegas and Los Angeles. All 20 cities showed increases.

Unadjusted prices in the 20 cities climbed 0.2 percent in December from the previous month.

The year-over-year gauge provides better indications of trends in prices, the group has said.

The panel includes Karl Case and Robert Shiller, the economists who created the index. Year-over-year records began in 2001.

Phoenix led the group of 19 cities that showed year-over-year increases, with a 23 percent jump in the 12 months to December. San Francisco was second with a 14.4 percent gain.

Record gains

Atlanta and Detroit posted their biggest year-over-year gains in data going back to 1991, according to the report. Dallas, Denver and Minneapolis showed their biggest advances since 2001.

Only houses in New York lost value, dropping 0.5 percent over the 12-month period.

“Home prices ended 2012 with solid gains,” David Blitzer, chairman of the S&P index committee, said. “These movements, combined with other housing data, suggest that while housing is on the upswing some of the strongest numbers may have already been seen.”

Purchases of previously-owned homes rose in January even as depleted inventories restrained further improvement, the National Association of Realtors reported last week.

About 4.66 million existing houses were sold last year, the most since 2007, according to the group’s data.

Mortgage rates

Affordable borrowing costs are attracting buyers with adequate credit.

The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was at 3.56 percent in the week ended Feb. 21, close to the 3.31 percent in November that was the lowest in data going back to 1972, according to McLean, Va.-based Freddie Mac (OTC: FMCC).

Even as Toll Brothers Inc. (NYSE: TOL) the largest U.S. luxury-home builder, announced fiscal first-quarter earnings that trailed analyst estimates, the company reported signs of strength in the industry.

“After seven years of trepidation, buyers are reentering the housing market and household formations are increasing,” Robert Toll, the Horsham, Pa.-based company’s chairman and co-founder, said on Feb. 20.

“Low inventories of houses for sale, a limited supply of approved lots, home prices are rising,” Toll said. “Buyers who need to sell one home to move to the next one are more willing and able to make the move. These factors, plus record-low interest rates, are boosting the housing market’s recovery.”

Further housing improvement may depend on stronger gains in employment.

Employers added 157,000 workers to payrolls in January after a revised 196,000 rise the prior month and a 247,000 surge in November, Labor Department data showed Feb. 1.

Revisions added a total of 127,000 jobs in the last two months of 2012.

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