Fun with housing numbers

New home sales: Soaring high or crashing down? You decide.

Published April 26, 2006 9:12PM (EDT)

This is fun: Here are two separate headlines from news articles reporting on Wednesday's housing market statistics. (Thanks to the folks who congregate at the Housing Bubble Blog for the links.)

From the real estate news services Inman News: "New home sales drop 7 percent."

From CNN: "New home sales soar."

What's the difference? Inman News is reporting the year-over-year numbers -- sales of new homes in March 2006 declined 7 percent from sales in new homes in March 2005. CNN, however, is reporting month-over-month statistics, in which case, March sales leaped 13.8 percent from February.

For housing-bubble watchers, the numbers present a dilemma. Do you acknowledge that the housing market might be suddenly bouncing back after a few months of decline, or do you imitate the behavior of the National Association of Realtors, and simply trumpet the stat that best supports your chosen worldview? It's something of a philosophical conundrum, because the more deeply you immerse yourself in statistical minutiae, the more likely you are to find a host of contradictory numbers that can be spun any which way you please. The more you know, the less you know.

But those who believe that the housing bubble has already popped can, paradoxically, take heart in the very CNN article whose headline is so effusive. Quoted in the story is economist Bob Brusca, who says the new home numbers are deceptive. He points to yet another set of numbers: Median and average home prices dropped in March from both February and last year. Which indicates, he says, that home builders are frantically slashing prices on new homes to deal with a surging inventory of unsold houses.

CNN's Chris Isidore gets the money quote from Brusca: "New homes sales sprang back to life like a zombie in a cheap horror flick. And like that zombie, housing really is dead. Don't let all that twitching fool you."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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