By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S home sales fell more than expected in June as a persistent shortage of properties pushed prices to a record high, indicating the housing market was struggling to regain speed since hitting a soft patch last year.
Housing and manufacturing are the main areas of weakness in the economy. They are offsetting strong consumer spending, resulting in a slowdown in economic activity that, together with trade tensions and tepid global growth, could see the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates next Wednesday for the first time in a decade.
The National Association of Realtors said on Tuesday existing home sales dropped 1.7% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.27 million units last month. The median existing house price increased 4.3% from a year ago to an all-time high of $285,700 (£229,607) in June.
"Meager inventory levels, especially in the entry-level segment, and still-rising prices continue to limit the selection of homes available to more budget-conscious buyers," said Matthew Speakman, an economist at Zillow.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast existing home sales slipping 0.2% to a rate of 5.33 million units in June. Existing home sales, which make up about 90% of home sales, decreased 2.2% from a year ago. That was the 16th straight year-on-year decline in home sales.
The weakness in housing comes despite cheaper mortgage rates and the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 50 years.
Supply has continued to lag, especially in the lower-price segment of the housing market because of land and labour shortages, as well as expensive building materials. The government reported last week that permits for future home construction dropped to a two-year low in June.
According to the NAR, there was a 19% drop from a year earlier in sales of houses priced $100,000 and below. The Realtors group said there was strong demand in this market segment, but not enough homes for sale.
The NAR also said last year's revamp of the U.S. tax code, which reduced the amount of mortgage interest payments homeowners could deduct, was weighing on demand for homes priced at $1 million and above.
The 30-year fixed mortgage rate has dropped to an average of 3.81% from a more than seven-year peak of 4.94% in November, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac.
Last month, existing home sales rose in the Northeast and Midwest. They tumbled in the populous South and in the West.
June's drop in existing homes sales likely means less in brokers' commissions, which suggests that housing probably remained a drag on gross domestic product in the second quarter. Spending on homebuilding contracted in the first quarter, the fifth straight quarterly decline.
The Atlanta Fed is forecasting GDP rising at a 1.6% annualised rate in the second quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% rate in the January-March period. The government will publish it snapshot of second-quarter GDP on Friday.
The PHLX housing index <.HGX> fell, underperforming a broadly firmer U.S. stock market that was boosted by upbeat earnings and forecasts from Coca-Cola <KO.N> and United Technologies <UTX.N>. The dollar rose to a five-week high against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mixed.
There were 1.93 million previously owned homes on the market in June, up from 1.91 million in May and unchanged from a year ago. The tight inventory boosted house price inflation, which had been slowing after a jump in mortgage rates last year dampened demand for housing.
Economists, however, do not believe the re-acceleration in home prices reported by the NAR is a true picture of home values. In a separate report on Tuesday, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) said its house price index rose a seasonally adjusted 5.0% in May from a year ago, slowing from an increase of 5.2% in April.
"We believe that the FHFA index is the more reliable indicator because the price measures reported in the existing home sales report don't control for changes in the mix of sales," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. "The FHFA index continues to show that the pace of appreciation has been cooling lately, which is a message consistent with several other related measures."
Last month, houses for sale typically stayed on the market for 27 days, up from 26 days in May and a year ago. Fifty-six percent of homes sold in June were on the market for less than a month. At June's sales pace, it would take 4.4 months to exhaust the current inventory, up from 4.3 months in May.
A six-to-seven-month supply is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand. First-time buyers accounted for 35% of sales last month, up from 32% in May and 31% a year ago. Economists and realtors say a 40% share of first-time buyers is needed for a robust housing market.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)