More U.S. children die in mass shootings at home than at school: study

By Brad Brooks

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Three out of four U.S. children and teens killed in mass shootings over the past decade were victims of domestic violence and generally died in their homes, according to a study released on Thursday by the gun control group Everytown.

While the specter of school shootings looms darkly in the minds of American parents who remember massacres in Newtown, Connecticut; Parkland, Florida, and around the country, the group’s review of shootings from 2009 through 2018 found far more children are killed in their own homes.

“These are not random acts of violence, yet people have the perception that the killings come out of nowhere,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, Everytown’s research director. “That is simply not the truth.”

The Everytown report, based on police and court records, as well as media reports, found that 54% of mass shootings involved the shooter killing a family member or intimate partner.

A total of 1,121 people were killed in 194 mass shootings in the decade examined – one-third of whom were children or teens.

Nearly two-thirds of all mass shootings took place entirely inside homes, the study found.

Burd-Sharps said Everytown hopes that its report helps the public gain more understanding about the statistical realities of mass shootings, which it defines as an incident that kills at least four people, excluding the shooter.

The federal government and other groups set a lower threshold for what constitutes a mass shooting. Those definitions can result in higher totals than Everytown’s count.

Only 1% of the nearly 35,000 gun deaths averaged in the United States each year in the past decade involved mass shootings, but Burd-Sharps said she believes public interest in them can help propel gun-safety legislation that could cut gun deaths across the board.

At the top of Everytown’s wish list is a “red flag” law that would allow family members or law enforcement officers to petition a judge to seize firearms from a person they think is a threat to themselves or others.

The group also believes a comprehensive federal law requiring background checks on all gun sales would quickly be effective in decreasing gun deaths.

The link between domestic violence in mass shootings was seen this week in San Diego, when a man who had a restraining order against him killed his wife and three of their four young sons before taking his own life.

“When you look at all these cases of kids who lost their lives, if some family member had been able to heed the warning signs and temporarily had guns removed from the home, many of those children would still be alive,” Burd-Sharps said.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)

California’s PG&E customers face new round of mass outages

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Power supply to about 150,000 California homes and businesses is expected to be shut off on Wednesday, in the latest precautionary outage planned by utility giant PG&E against wildfire risks posed by extremely dry, windy weather.

Late on Tuesday, the company said it would go forward with the shutoffs from 9 a.m., with some customers likely to be unaffected until late afternoon.

The mass blackout will be the fourth imposed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co, a unit of PG&E Corp, since Oct. 9, when about 730,000 customers were left in the dark as a preventive measure called a “public safety power shutoff.”

A precautionary outage initiated on Oct. 23 hit an estimated 179,000 customers, while another run in phases from Oct. 26 through Nov. 1 affected a record 941,000 homes and workplaces, according to PG&E.

The latest mass shutoff is likely to run through midday Thursday and could ultimately affect 181,000 customers across portions of 16 counties in northern and central California, PG&E spokeswoman Katie Allen told Reuters.

The outages are a response to forecasts for humidity levels to drop and heavy desert winds to howl through the region, a scenario that strengthens the risk of wildfires ignited by downed power lines.

Wind gusts will reach between 35 mph and 55 miles (56 km to 89 km), with isolated areas of higher gusts, National Weather Service forecasters said.

PG&E, California’s largest investor-owned utility, filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in civil liability from major fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

That tally includes the state’s deadliest fire on record, the Camp fire that killed 85 people in and around the northern town of Paradise last year.

The recent wave of precautionary shutoffs has provoked criticism from Governor Gavin Newsom, state regulators and consumer activists as being too broad.

Newsom blames PG&E for doing too little to properly maintain and secure its power lines against wind damage and has accused the utility of poorly managing some of the mass outages.

Utility executives have acknowledged room for improvement while defending the sprawling cutoffs as a matter of public safety.

The California Public Utilities Commission recently opened a formal investigation of whether PG&E and other utilities violated energy regulations by cutting power to millions of residents for days at a time during periods of high winds.

Even as northern California braced for heightened wildfire risks, parts of Southern California, including Los Angeles, were expected to be doused by their first substantial showers after months of little or no rainfall.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. mortgage requests rise as loan rates hold near 10-month low: MBA

A view of single family homes for sale in San Marcos, California October 25, 2013. PROPERTY REUTERS/Mike Blake

(Reuters) – U.S. mortgage applications increased for the first time in five weeks as most home borrowing costs hovered near their lowest in 10 months, the Mortgage Bankers Association said on Wednesday.

The Washington-based industry group said its seasonally adjusted gauge of loan requests to buy a home and to refinance one rose 3.6 percent to 365.3 in the week ended Feb. 15. The prior week’s reading was the lowest in a month.

“Mortgage rates held steady on mixed economic news, as core inflation remained firm, while retail sales in December were much weaker than expected. However, overall application activity picked up over the week,” Joel Kan, MBA’s associate vice president of industry surveys and forecasts, said in a statement.

Interest rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances of $484,350 or less ticked up to 4.66 percent from the prior week’s 4.65 percent, which was the lowest since March 2, 2018.

U.S. Treasury yields, which are benchmarks for most mortgages, rose last week as underlying inflation trends remained intact and traders reduced their safe-haven bond holdings on optimism that China and the United States would resolve their trade conflict.

The other mortgage rates that MBA tracks were unchanged to 8 basis points higher on the week.

“Most rates remained close to 10-month lows, which allowed some borrowers with an incentive to refinance to capitalize,” Kan said.

The group’s seasonally adjusted barometer on home refinancing requests rose 6.4 percent to 1,084.4.

The refinance share of total mortgage applications was 41.7 percent last week, compared with 41.8 percent the prior week.

MBA’s seasonally adjusted gauge on applications to buy a home, which is seen as a proxy on future housing activity, climbed 1.7 percent at 232.7 last week.

(Reporting by Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Man arrested for starting Colorado wildfire burning over 38,000 acres

Flames rise past a ridge during efforts to contain the Spring Creek Fire in Costilla County, Colorado, U.S. June 27, 2018. Costilla County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

TAOS, New Mexico (Reuters) – A man was arrested on Saturday on charges of starting a forest fire in Colorado that has destroyed structures and forced hundreds to evacuate their homes in one of dozens of wildfires raging across the drought-hit U.S. southwest.

Jesper Joergensen, 52, was taken into custody for suspected arson that started the Springs Fire, the most active of around 10 blazes in Colorado, the state hardest hit by fires, according to Costilla County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.

Joergensen is not a U.S. citizen and will be handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement once he has faced arson charges, said a Costilla County detention officer. The officer could not immediately say what nationality Joergensen held.

The fire has scorched over 38,000 acres (15,378 hectares) between the towns of Fort Garland and La Veta in southern Colorado, forcing more mandatory evacuations of homes and ranches on Saturday in a mountainous area of public and private land. The fire continued to grow, fueled by temperatures in the mid 80s Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) and had zero percent containment as of Saturday afternoon.

Air tankers and helicopters dropped fire retardant and water on the blaze. Authorities asked evacuated residents not to fly drones to check on their properties as the devices posed a danger to aircraft and would force them to be grounded.

An unknown number of structures were consumed by the fire, said Bethany Urban, a public information officer. No injuries have been reported.

Gusty winds, single-digit humidity and hot temperatures have fueled the fires and could ignite new blazes in the U.S. West, the National Weather Service said in several warnings.

The largest wildfire in Colorado, the 416 Fire, has charred almost 47,000 acres about 13 miles (21 km) north of Durango in the southwest corner of the state, and is 37 percent contained, said public information officer Brandalyn Vonk.

About 10 smaller wildfires were burning in New Mexico and three in Arizona, with much of the two states suffering extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

All but the northeastern corner of Colorado is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Grant McCool)

U.S. housing starts approach 11-year high, permits weak

FILE PHOTO: A "For Sale" sign is seen outside a home in Cardiff, California, U.S. on February 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. home building surged to near an 11-year high in May amid an acceleration in both single-family and multi-family housing construction, but a second straight monthly drop in permits suggested housing market activity would remain moderate.

Higher lumber prices as well as labor and land shortages have left builders unable to meet strong housing demand, which has depleted the number of properties available for sale. Housing demand is being fueled by the lowest unemployment rate in 18 years.

“There is some early evidence that lumber prices may now have peaked, but the shortage of labor will not be solved so quickly, and that means housing market conditions will remain tight for the remainder of the year,” said Matthew Pointon, property economist at Capital Economics in New York.

The Trump administration in April 2017 imposed anti-subsidy duties on imports of Canadian softwood lumber.

Housing starts vaulted 5.0 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.350 million units last month, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday. That was the highest level since July 2007. Starts in the Midwest jumped 62.2 percent to their highest level since September 2006, offsetting declines in the Northeast, South and Midwest regions.

Building permits fell 4.6 percent to a rate of 1.301 million units, the lowest level since September 2017.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast housing starts rising to a pace of 1.310 million units last month and permits declining to a rate of 1.350 million units.

Single-family homebuilding, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, increased 3.9 percent to a rate of 936,000 units last month. It has lost momentum since hitting a pace of 948,000 units last November, which was the strongest level in more than 10 years.

Permits to build single-family homes fell 2.2 percent in May to a pace of 844,000 units, an eight-month low. With permits lagging starts, single-family homebuilding could slow in the months ahead.

U.S. stocks fell sharply as President Donald Trump’s latest threat to impose duties on more Chinese goods fanned fears that tit-for-tat tariffs could spiral into a trade war.

The PHLX housing index  declined in tandem with the weaker stock market. Prices for U.S. Treasuries rose and the dollar  strengthened against a basket of currencies.

HOUSING SHORTAGE

A survey on Monday showed confidence among single-family homebuilders dipped in June, with builders “increasingly concerned that tariffs placed on Canadian lumber and other imported products are hurting housing affordability.” According to the survey, more expensive lumber had “added nearly $9,000 to the price of a new single-family home since January 2017.”

Residential investment contracted in the first quarter. The housing market continues to lag overall economic growth, which appears to be accelerating in the second quarter after hitting a speed bump at the start of the year.

Growth estimates for the second quarter are as high as a 4.7 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent pace in the January-March period.

In May, starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment rebounded 7.5 percent to a rate of 414,000 units. Permits for the construction of multi-family homes fell 8.8 percent to a pace of 457,000 units.

The housing shortage could ease slightly, with more houses under construction and being completed. Housing completions increased 1.9 percent to a rate of 1.291 million units, the highest level since January 2008. The number of single-family houses completed last month was the most since March 2008.

Realtors estimate that housing start and completion rates need to be in a range of 1.5 million to 1.6 million units per month to plug the inventory gap.

The stock of housing under construction edged up 0.2 percent to 1.127 million units, the highest level since July 2007. Single-family homes under construction last month increased 0.2 percent to 515,000 units, the highest level since May 2008.

“While the rise is good news, it’s still not enough for a hot real estate market that is starving for inventory during the peak summer sales season,” said Sam Khater, chief economist at mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Hundreds flee Australian bushfires that kill cattle, destroy homes

Smoke rises from a destroyed home after a bushfire swept through the town of Tathra, located on the south-east coast of New South Wales in Australia, March 19, 2018. AAP/Dean Lewins/via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities urged people to remain alert on Monday as bushfires that have destroyed dozens of homes, killed cattle and forced hundreds of residents to flee continued to burn out of control in the southeast of the country.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported on Monday but the bushfires have caused extensive damage in rural areas of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s two most populous states. More than 100 houses were damaged or destroyed, authorities said.

“At this stage (there have been) no lives lost,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at a news conference in the small NSW coastal town of Tathra.

“It is just a great credit to the firefighters, to the volunteers, the emergency workers – all of the community has pulled together and provided such great support,” he said.

The fires, believed to have been sparked by lightning on Saturday, were fanned by dry, hot winds as temperatures reached 41 degrees Celsius (106 Fahrenheit) on Sunday.

Emergency officials said conditions should ease later on Monday but “watch and act” warnings remained in place for five locations.

A house thats has been destroyed by a bushfire can be seen near the town of Cobden, located south west of Melbourne in Australia, March 18, 2018. AAP/David Crosling/via REUTERS

A house thats has been destroyed by a bushfire can be seen near the town of Cobden, located south west of Melbourne in Australia, March 18, 2018. AAP/David Crosling/via REUTERS

The fire also set off an argument among Australia’s politicians on whether climate change was a contributing factor to the blazes.

“You can’t attribute any particular event, whether it’s a flood or fire or a drought …to climate change. We are the land of droughts and flooding rains, we’re the land of bushfires,” Turnbull said.

Authorities said some 69 houses were destroyed and a further 39 were damaged and 30 caravans or cabins were also wiped out in Tathra, where residents fled to the beach on Sunday to avoid the flames as flying embers quickly carried the firefront forward.

About 700 residents were evacuated to centers set up at the nearby town of Bega and several schools in affected areas were closed on Monday.

NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers earlier told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that five of 22 fires had not yet been contained.

“There’s still a lot of fire around the landscape,” he said, warning that it would still be several days before they were extinguished.

About 280 firefighters were battling the blazes, while 22,000 homes were without power in the region after high winds brought down trees, Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said late on Sunday.

Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers, fueled by highly flammable eucalyptus trees.

In January, hundreds of holidaymakers had to be evacuated by boat from the beaches of the Royal National Park south of Sydney when they became trapped by bushfires.

The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people and injured more than 400.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE; Editing by Susan Fenton and Paul Tait)

U.S. home sales hit 11-year high in November, supply still tight

A U.S. flag decorates a for-sale sign at a home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, August 21, 2012.

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. home sales increased more than expected in November, hitting their highest level in nearly 11 years, the latest indication that housing was regaining momentum after almost stalling this year.

The National Association of Realtors said on Wednesday that existing home sales surged 5.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.81 million units last month amid continued recovery in areas in the South ravaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. That was the highest level since December 2006 and followed an upwardly revised 5.50 million-unit pace in October.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast home sales rising 0.9 percent to a 5.52 million-unit rate in November from a previously reported 5.48 million-unit pace in October.

Existing home sales make up about 90 percent of U.S. home sales. They rose 3.8 percent on a year-on-year basis in November.

The NAR said sales in the South, which accounts for almost half of the existing homes sales market, increased 8.3 percent last month. Sales rose 6.7 percent in the Northeast and jumped 8.4 percent in the Midwest. They, however, fell 2.3 percent in the West, which has seen a strong increase in house prices.

Despite the recent gains, existing home sales remain constrained by a chronic shortage of houses at the lower end of the market, which is keeping prices elevated and sidelining some first-time buyers, who accounted for 29 percent of transactions last month.

Economists and realtors say a 40 percent share of first-time buyers is needed for a robust housing market.

The number of previously owned homes on the market dropped 7.2 percent to 1.67 million units in November. That was the second lowest reading since 1999. Housing inventory has dropped for 30 straight months on a year-on-year basis.

At November’s sales pace, it would take a record low 3.4 months to exhaust the current inventory, down from 3.9 months in October. A six-month supply is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand.

With supply still tight, the median house price increased 5.8 percent from a year ago to $248,000 in November. That was the 69th consecutive month of year-on-year price gains. In contrast, annual wage growth has struggled to break above 2.9 percent since the 2007/09 recession ended.

The report came on the heels of data this week showing homebuilder confidence vaulting to a near 18-1/2-year high in December and single-family homebuilding and permits rising in November to levels last seen in the third quarter of 2007.

TAX REVAMP WILL HURT HOUSE PRICES

The NAR said it anticipated a slightly negative impact on the housing market from the Republican overhaul of the U.S. tax code.

The biggest overhaul of the tax system in more than 30 years, which could be signed into law by President Donald Trump soon, will cap the deduction for mortgage interest at $750,000 in home loan value for residences bought from Jan. 1, 2018, through Dec. 31, 2025.

After Dec. 31, 2025, the cap would revert to $1 million in loan value. It suspends the deduction for interest on home equity loans from Jan. 1, 2018 until 2026. The NAR said about 94 percent of homeowners would fall under the $750,000 cap.

Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi has warned that the tax revamp would weigh on house prices, with the Northeast corridor, South Florida, big Midwestern cities, and the West Coast suffering the biggest price declines.

“The hit to national house prices is estimated to be near 4 percent at the peak of their impact in summer 2019,” said Zandi. “That is, national house prices will be approximately 4 percent lower than they would have been if there was no tax legislation.”

The PHLX housing index was trading higher in line with a broadly firmer stock market. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. Prices for U.S. Treasuries fell.

The government reported on Tuesday that single-family homebuilding, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, jumped 5.3 percent in November to the highest level since September 2007.

Permits for the future construction of these housing units rose 1.4 percent to a level not seen since August 2007. Housing completions continued to lag at a rate of 1.116 million units.

Realtors estimate that the housing starts and completions rates need to be in a range of 1.5 million to 1.6 million units per month to plug the inventory gap.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. housing starts fall for second straight month; outlook murky

U.S. housing starts fall for second straight month; outlook murky

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. homebuilding fell for a second straight month in August as a rebound in the construction of single-family houses was offset by persistent weakness in the volatile multifamily home segment.

The report from the Commerce Department on Tuesday also showed building permits racing to a seven-month high in August. However, permits for single-family homebuilding, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, dropped.

The mixed report suggested housing could remain a drag on economic growth in the third quarter. Homebuilding has been treading water for much of this year amid shortages of land and skilled labor as well as rising costs of building materials.

Housing starts slipped 0.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.18 million units, the Commerce Department said.

Building permits surged 5.7 percent to a rate of 1.30 million units in August, the highest level since January.

The data suggested limited impact on permits from Hurricane Harvey, which lashed Texas in late August and caused unprecedented flooding in Houston. The Commerce Department said the response rate from areas affected by the storm “was not significantly lower.”

But homebuilding could slump further in September in the aftermath of Harvey and Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida. According to Census Bureau data, the areas in Texas and Florida that were devastated by the storms accounted for about 13 percent of permits issued in the nation last year.

Though activity could pick up as the hurricane-ravaged communities rebuild, the dearth of labor could curb the pace of increase in homebuilding. A survey Monday showed confidence among homebuilders fell in September amid concerns that the hurricanes could worsen the labor shortages and make building materials more expensive.

Economists had forecast housing starts rising to a 1.18 million-unit pace last month. Investment in homebuilding contracted in the second quarter at its steepest pace in nearly seven years. As a result, housing subtracted 0.26 percentage point from second-quarter gross domestic product.

Homebuilding rose 1.4 percent in August on a year-on-year basis. Despite the recent weakness, housing continues to be supported by a labor market that is near full employment. In addition, mortgage rates remain close to historic lows.

Single-family homebuilding jumped 1.6 percent to a rate of851,000 units in August. Single-family permits, however, fell 1.5 percent to a 800,000-unit pace. With permits lagging starts, single-family homebuilding could decline in the months ahead. Groundbreaking on single-family housing projects has slowed since vaulting to near a 9-1/2-year high in February.

MIXED DATA

Last month, single-family starts rose in the South and West, but fell in the Midwest and Northeast. Starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment tumbled 6.5 percent to a rate of 329,000 units. Multi-family permits vaulted 19.6 percent to a 500,000-unit pace in August.

The mixed data is unlikely to change expectations that the Federal Reserve will announce on Wednesday a plan to start unwinding its $4.2 trillion portfolio of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. Fed officials were scheduled to start a two-day meeting later on Tuesday.

The dollar was trading lower against basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasuries rose. U.S. stock futures were slightly higher.

In a separate report on Tuesday, the Labor Department said import prices jumped 0.6 percent in August, the biggest gain since January, after dipping 0.1 percent in July.

In the 12 months through August, import prices surged 2.1 percent after rising 1.2 percent in July.

Last month, prices for imported petroleum raced 4.8 percent after slipping 0.4 percent in July. Import prices excluding petroleum rose 0.3 percent after dipping 0.1 percent the prior month. Import prices excluding petroleum increased 1.0 percent in the 12 months through August.

Import prices outside petroleum are rising as the dollar’s rally fades. The dollar has weakened 8.3 percent against the currencies of the United States’ main trading partners this year.

The report also showed export prices rose 0.6 percent in August after gaining 0.5 percent in July. They increased 2.3 percent year-on-year after rising 0.9 percent in August.

A third report from the Commerce Department showed the current account deficit, which measures the flow of goods, services and investments into and out of the country, increased to $123.1 billion in the second quarter from $113.5 billion in the first quarter.

That was the highest level since the fourth quarter of 2008.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. housing starts fall in March, permits rise

A skyscraper reflects clouds in the Manhattan borough of New York May 26, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. homebuilding fell in March as the construction of single-family homes in the Midwest recorded its biggest decline in three years, likely reflecting bad weather.

Housing starts declined 6.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.22 million units, the Commerce

Department said on Tuesday. February’s starts were revised up to a 1.30 million-unit pace from the previously reported 1.29 million-rate.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast groundbreaking activity falling to a 1.25 million-unit pace last month. Homebuilding was up 9.2 percent compared to March 2016.

Construction in February was boosted by unseasonably warm temperatures. But temperatures dropped in March and a storm lashed the Northeast and Midwest regions, which could have accounted for the drop last month in homebuilding.

Single-family homebuilding, which accounts for the largest share of the residential housing market, fell 6.2 percent to a 821,000 unit-pace last month. Single-family starts in the Midwest declined 35 percent, the largest drop since January 2014, to their lowest level since August 2015.

Single-family starts in the Northeast were unchanged. They rose 3.2 percent in the South, but fell 5.5 percent in the West.

Last month, starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment dropped 7.9 percent to a 394,000 unit-pace.

Pointing to underlying strength in the housing market, building permits increased 3.6 percent, driven by a 13.8 percent surge in the multi-family segment.

While single-family permits fell 1.1 percent, they were not too far from the more than nine-year high reached in February.

A tightening labor market, which is generating steady wage growth is underpinning the housing market. The sector, however, remains constrained by a dearth of properties available for sale.

Builders have, however, failed to bridge the gap, citing a range of problems including shortages of labor and land as well as rising material prices. A survey on Monday showed homebuilders confidence slipped in April from a near 12-year high in March. Still, measures of current sales and sales expectations remained at lofty levels.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani)

Pending home sales surge to 10-month high

A home for sale sign hangs in front of a house in Oakton in Virginia March 27, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Contracts to buy previously owned U.S. homes jumped to a 10-month high in February, pointing to robust demand for housing ahead of the spring selling season despite higher prices and mortgage rates.

The National Association of Realtors said on Wednesday its Pending Home Sales Index, based on contracts signed last month, surged 5.5 percent to 112.3, the highest reading since April. It was also the second best reading since May 2006.

Contract signing last month was likely boosted by unseasonably warm temperatures. The gains reversed January’s 2.8 percent drop. Pending home contracts become sales after a month or two, and last month’s surge implied a pickup in home resales after they tumbled 3.7 percent in February.

Economists had forecast pending home sales rising 2.4 percent last month. Pending home sales increased 2.6 percent from a year ago.

Demand for housing is being driven by the labor market, which is generating wage increases, as it nears full employment. Sales activity, however, remains constrained by tight inventories, which are driving up home prices.

Given labor market strength, economists expect only a modest impact from higher mortgage rates. The 30-year fixed mortgage rate is currently at 4.23 percent, below a more than 2-1/2-year high of 4.32 percent hit in December.

Contracts increased 3.4 percent in the Northeast and jumped 3.1 percent in the West. They surged 11.4 percent in the Midwest and rose 4.3 percent in the South.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)