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The New Economy

Rising foreclosures weigh on housing market

By / April 16, 2009

A foreclosure sign sits outside a home for sale in Phoenix.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File

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Sisyphus, you may remember, was the king condemned to rolling a stone up a hill only to see it roll back down. That's sorta how you spell "futile" in Greek mythology.

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But at least Sisyphus wasn't a Realtor.

The nation's real estate brokers now appear on slipperier footing after Thursday's release of two bearish reports.

Housing starts fall

The Commerce Department said housing starts fell back in March to near record lows. (Click here to see which region saw surprisingly strong gains.) That means Realtors will have a much smaller inventory of new homes to sell in coming months than at any time in the last 50 years.

Also, RealtyTrac announced that foreclosure filings in March were up 17 percent from the previous month and up 46 percent from March 2008. That's a record, although RealtyTrac, an online marketplace of foreclosure properties, has only been tracking the number for four years.

Glut continues

So any broker inclined to take small comfort from the first report – at least the glutted inventory of homes will shrink – got a cold splash of recession reality with the second. More foreclosed homes than ever are coming onto the market, now that foreclosure moratoriums have come to an end and banks have taken stock of the government's mortgage modification plans.

At least, today's Sisyphuses (Sisyphi?) are getting some help. The Treasury Department is paying six banks up to $9.9 billion to bring down mortgage payments for 3 million to 4 million borrowers at risk of foreclosure. The Federal Reserve is buying up Treasury notes to bring down interest rates on home loans.

Eventually, the real estate market will recover. At the moment, though, the rock still seems to be sliding backward despite all those pushing and tugging to keep it stable.

"It’s very likely that we’ll see the number of [bank repossessions] increase again now that most of the moratoria have been lifted," James Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac, said in a statement.

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