NewHomeSales-copyThe pent-up housing demand apparently saw its shadow and is still in hiding – existing home sales declined in March, the first real month of the spring buying season, even as prices continue to rise.

Sales of existing homes declined 0.2% in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.59 million, the slowest it’s been since July 2012, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Affordability challenges and a declining inventory hampered sales, NAR says.

The median sales price of used homes hit $198,500 in March, up 7.9% from the year-earlier period. March’s inventory was 1.99 million existing homes for sale, a 5.2-month supply at the current sales pace.

The Federal Housing Finance Administration separately reported that U.S. house prices rose in February, with an increase of 0.6% on a seasonally adjusted basis from the previous month.

The FHFA’s measure is for February and considers different metrics and data sets than the NAR’s, which is for March. The FHFA HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages either sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. From February 2013 to February 2014, house prices were up 6.9%.

The 0.1% decrease in November 2013 ended a 21-month trend of price increases that had begun in February 2012. The previously reported 0.5% increase in January was revised downward to 0.4%.

“From a regional standpoint, sales were weak in the South and West, down 3.0% and 3.7%, respectively. Sales in the Midwest and North, on the other hand, were up 4.7% and 9.1%, respectively,” noted Sterne Agee chief economist Lindsey Piegza. “Bottom line, demand for housing remains uneven after months of heightened sales activity earlier in 2013. Now against the backdrop of minimal income growth and a still-tepid labor market, demand continues to wane.

“For potential homebuyers, rising prices are eroding affordability, putting further downward pressure on consumer’s ability and willingness to finance a home purchase. From the owner’s perspective however, rising prices are helping to create and maintain a wealth effect, fueling (or at least helping to support) consumer spending,” she said.

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said that current sales activity is underperforming by historical standards.

“There really should be stronger levels of home sales given our population growth,” he said. “In contrast, price growth is rising faster than historical norms because of inventory shortages.”

Trey Garrison at Housing Wire.