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SALES OF US EXISTING HOMES SLIP TO A 20-MONTH LOW

Tuesday, 22 April 2014 09:55 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sales of existing U.S. homes slipped in March to their lowest level since July 2012 as rising prices and a tight supply of available homes discouraged many would-be buyers.

The National Association of Realtors said Tuesday that sales edged down 0.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.59 million. It was the seventh drop in the past eight months.

Sales rose in the Northeast and Midwest, suggesting that cold winter weather did not slow sales. And the Realtors' group says the scant decline shows that sales are stabilizing and might strengthen in coming months as the spring buying season picks up. Many Realtors report seeing more potential buyers at open houses.

Sales fell in the West and South, where prices have risen the most in the past year. The price increases were smaller in the Northeast and Midwest.

Nationwide, the median sales price last month was $198,200, up 7.4 percent from 12 months ago.

The sharpest sales increase occurred among homes priced at $1 million or above. Purchases rose 8 percent in that category. Sales fell in nearly every other price group.

Other measures of home prices have shown stronger gains. Real estate data provider CoreLogic says prices rose 12.2 percent in the past year. That might be discouraging some potential investors, who accounted for just 17 percent of home sales in March, the lowest proportion since August. It was down from 21 percent in February.

But in a positive sign, first-time buyers made up 30 percent of home sales in March, the highest proportion in a year. That's still below the roughly 40 percent that's consistent with a healthy housing market. First-timers have struggled to save for down payments. They also face tight credit standards.

The Realtors' group expects 5 million existing homes to change hands this year. That's down from 5.1 million last year, which was the most in seven years. It's also below the 5.5 million that reflects a healthy market.

Sales of existing homes rose steadily in the first half of last year, reaching an annual pace of 5.38 million in July. But sales slowed in the fall as rising mortgage rates and higher prices began to squeeze some buyers out of the market. Freezing temperatures and winter storms also kept prospective buyers away from open houses.

Home prices are rising even as sales slow. That's a sign that the supply of available homes is tight, forcing potential buyers to make higher bids.

There were nearly 2 million homes for sale at the end of March. But at the current sales pace, that's enough to last only 5.2 months, below the 6 months' supply that is considered normal.

More construction is needed to boost the supply, the Realtors' group argues.

The average rate on a 30-year mortgage was 4.27 percent last week, according to mortgage buyer Freddie Mac. That was down from 4.34 percent the previous week. But the rate is still about a full percentage point above last spring's record lows.

___

Follow Chris Rugaber on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/ChrisRugaber

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is tightening its control over intelligence and limiting officials' interactions with reporters.

The new directive is intended to prevent unauthorized disclosures. It limits contact with the media for officials with the 17 intelligence agencies to authorized personnel only, such as designated press officers and the top two officials of intelligence divisions.

The directive was issued in March and applies to unclassified intelligence information. If an unauthorized intelligence official speaks to a member of the media, the official is to report that interaction.

The new rules come nearly a year after a former National Security Agency employee disclosed classified surveillance programs to reporters.

WHOA THERE: NYC CARRIAGE HORSE BAN IS STALLED

Tuesday, 22 April 2014 09:53 Published in National News

NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Bill de Blasio is pulling back the reins on his plans to quickly get rid of New York City's horse-drawn carriage industry, stung by a recent outpouring of support for the colorful coaches that have clip-clopped their way through Central Park for more than 150 years.

A campaign pledge to take on the horses during his first week as mayor was eclipsed by other issues. And as he nears his fourth month in office, he has encountered enough resistance from the usually compliant City Council to slow his plans again, now saying an industry he calls cruel and inhumane will be gone by year's end.

What changed?

For one, a media blitz led by actor Liam Neeson has portrayed the horse-drawn carriage industry as an iconic, romantic part of New York that provides about 400 jobs, many to Irish immigrants. In a series of editorials and TV interviews, he has said the operators treat their 200 working horses like their own children.

"I can appreciate a happy and well-cared-for horse when I see one," Neeson wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times. "It has been my experience, always, that horses, much like humans, are at their happiest and healthiest when working."

The next blow came when a series of city unions — who usually are de Blasio's staunchest allies — broke with the mayor, urging him to reconsider his decision in order to save not only the industry's hundreds of jobs but a profitable source of tourism.

A recent poll revealed that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers were in favor of keeping the horses at least in Central Park and were lukewarm on de Blasio's plan to put the horse drivers to work instead giving rides in old-timey electric cars.

Last week, the city's newspapers piled on. A story in the Times on the unveiling of the $150,000 prototype electric car described it as "the industrial spawn of a rickshaw and Thomas the Tank Engine," while an editorial bluntly urged de Blasio to "let the horses and carriages alone."

New York's Daily News launched a front-page campaign called "Save our Horses" that filled its pages with pro-carriage stories and an online petition that has recorded more than 11,000 signatures.

And The New Yorker devoted its cover this week to a cartoon depicting a carriage driver pulling the horse, giving the local tempest a national stage (but, like so many ambiguous New Yorker cartoons, it wasn't clear if it was taking sides on the issue).

For now, de Blasio and the animal rights activists who donated $1.3 million to his mayoral campaign are standing firm in the belief that the nation's most bustling city is no place for horses. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals launched an anti-horse carriage campaign with celebrities of its own, including Alec Baldwin, Pink and Lea Michele.

The group also organized a protest of its own last week outside Neeson's Manhattan apartment building.

Still, de Blasio has grown increasingly irritated by the number of questions he's faced about horses while trying to push other parts of his agenda.

"I've said it many times over the last year so let me try one more time: I believe it's inhumane," he said last week. "Horses working on the streets of New York City ... it's not right. We should change it."

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