Last week, we got some good news: Home prices in most major metropolitan areas are starting to stabilize. A report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) showed that 78 markets in the U.S. experienced price gains in the fourth quarter of 2010 over the previous year. Existing-home sales were up as well, rising 15.4% to an annual rate of 4.8 million from 4.16 million in the third quarter of 2010.

This wasn't a total improvement over 2009 -- prices are up 0.2%, however the fourth quarter of that year saw an annual rate of 5.97 million sales, largely due to the first-time home buyer tax credit -- but it's certainly progress.

Here's what that means for the average consumer:

A Slow Improvement
These are not great gains, and in fact, only half of the markets saw improvements, which means -- say it with me -- half did not. But it does mean we're inching in the right direction, and we should continue to see more growth as the year goes on.

A Heads Up for Buyers
If you're in the market for a home, you need to be paying attention to these numbers. "If I were thinking about buying, I would want to have some perspective about where prices were headed. If they're starting to accelerate, you might want to act. If there's been a decline, you have to realize that there are opportunities out there to shop and find a real bargain," says Jed Smith, the managing director of quantitative research at NAR. Chasing the bottom is never a good idea -- no one knows when it will hit-- but if you've been holding out and prices have shown signs of increasing in your area, you probably want to get serious.
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Another Chance for Sellers
If you've been waiting to put your home on the market -- or you had it on, but took it off because it just wasn't moving -- we may be inching toward a time when you can put it up for sale and recoup at least some of the value it lost during the recession.

It's Not a Store-Wide Sale
Real estate is extremely local, not just by state or city but by neighborhood, and in some cases, even by block. That means you really have to track your immediate area if you want to follow prices and sales data carefully. You can find out hyper-local information from a local real estate agent, one of the perks of working with one to find a home. But this national data from NAR tells you one thing: You're not going to find bargains in every market. "Everyone thinks that everything is on sale. It really isn't, and if you're going to make a realistic offer, you need to take into account whether prices are going up rapidly, stabilizing, or going down in your specific area. If prices are going up, a low-ball offer isn't going to work. If they aren't, you need to recognize that it might be a good time to buy a house," says Smith.

The Economy Is Improving
The jobs situation, in particular, which I wrote about last week, is looking better. We're adding jobs slowly -- too slowly for the kind of rebound we need -- but these NAR figures are promising. The unemployment rate in any given area tends to correlate very closely with home prices, explains Smith. "When the economy is generating jobs, and there are areas where jobs are being generated, home prices in those areas tend to be headed up. When the economy is holding constant, prices tend to be relatively stable. And where there are job problems, prices may be weak or headed down in some cases."

In NAR's release about these new numbers, Lawrence Yun, the association's chief economist, says that the housing recovery will mean faster job growth. He projects that 150,000 to 200,000 jobs will be added to the economy in 2011 from an anticipated 300,000 additional home sales.

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March 01 2011 at 3:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

writers like to play with numbers. The truth is the market will decline this year by at 9%. We have millions of homes going into forecloser this year. The unemployement has increased. Remember they don't count people who have given up looking for work. They don't count all the self-employed, contract workers etc. The true number of unemployed is around 18%

March 01 2011 at 1:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Just A Thought

I sure wish AOL and the rest of the media would stop the lies. And if this get's posted, I'll be surprised. Everything I write they don't post.

March 01 2011 at 8:52 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The housing market is 5-8 years away from any substantial recovery. Don't believe anything that any governmental agency says about the statistics.

Prices have fallen 10% or more in most areas last year.

Another 5 million potential homeowners will be kept out of the market because of poor credit scores.

When someone does get the nod because their credit is good, the appraisal comes back 10-20% lower than the purchase price.

Then, the goofs at the mortgage lenders jack up the rates to 5%, even though there is no demand for their money.

No wonder the housing segment of the economy is screwed up....look who is running the housing industry.

February 28 2011 at 11:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Cherry Sells

I've been a Realtor for 46 years. For agents to solely blame the mess on the lenders is cowardly. Agents shouldn't have been selling homes to people who weren't financially qualified to buy a home. That a lender was willing to make the loan is no excuse. The "If I didn't sell it to him, someone else would have," is also not an acceptable excuse. Doing wrong because someone else is going to do wrong if you don't do it first is unethical and immoral.

February 28 2011 at 9:24 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Cherry Sells

Mr. Yun's predictions are baseless.

February 28 2011 at 9:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

goodbye recession hello depression

February 28 2011 at 6:22 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Wonder if writer would like some waterfront land in New Mexico ??

February 28 2011 at 5:51 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Master Craftsman

Get Real, Folks. The only reason home sales numbers have improved is the number of distressed, (read Foreclosed), sales. Anyone actively trying to buy a foreclosed home has had to deal with banks who are under no pressure to unload the property because our own Federal government is propping up the underwriting with it's "quantitative easing". When will we ever see a government that is responsible to the people, not just the unions & special interests?

February 23 2011 at 4:37 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

If you listen to the realtors, banks, you will be on the loseing end, they are nothing but speculators driving the home prices, and that is what caused the home melt down. The market will be down for the next at least 3 years. Save your money if you can at least for 3 years. I live in Orlando, Fl. and the market is bad. You buy a house today and next year it will have lost at least 25% of its value.

February 23 2011 at 1:53 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kamfdi's comment

I'm a Realtor you jerk! I and other Realtors had nothing to do with what happened. Banks made loans to people who did not qualify and sold that bad debt to investors or to the government. Do some research before you make stupid statements like that.

February 24 2011 at 8:09 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Eddie's comment

That is BS everone wanted there coms so you all laided down all the way up the line.

April 18 2011 at 2:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down