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Top 10 considerations when buying a house

Let pragmatism overrule emotion during your search

It's easy to fall in love at first sight with a house when you are looking for a new place to live, but letting your emotions enter the equation can spell trouble. It can cloud your judgment and result in a bad decision.

Instead of letting your heart tell you where to call home, leave it up to your head. Make a list of the most important considerations in a new home and make sure any property you get serious about measures up.

Real estate site Zillow recently issued a lis...

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    Real estate market sending mixed signals

    Sales and prices are falling but so is inventory

    After months of a strong and stable recovery, U.S. home sales have slowed going into Autumn and prices have dipped. Even so, inventory remains tight in many markets, according to a number of industry sources.

    Though prices and conditions will vary by market, Zip Realty's Housing Trends Report shows home prices are moderating nationwide.

    "The fall's cooler temps are being matched by a cooling off in the housing market's red-hot trends," said Lanny Baker, CEO and President of ZipRealty. "For the month ended Sept. 15, median homes sale prices in the 24 metropolitan areas surveyed were up 14% year-over-year, compared to a nearly 16% gain one month earlier. Median sale prices were higher than a year ago in all cities studied, but the year to year median price increases shrank in 19 out of 24 markets. The median sale price of about $272,000 in mid-September was also about twp percent lower than in mid-August 2013."

    Further moderation

    The report said sold-to-list price ratios, new listings volume, pending sales volume, and days on market data for mid-September also all suggested further moderation.

    Redfin, another online real estate brokerage, says its data suggests sellers are losing control of the market, with buyers once again gaining the upper hand. However, its survey of agents found many believe that limited inventory and bidding wars remain the biggest challenges for buyers.

    Redfin says a slowing of sales and price rises heading into fall is not surprising. In September, it said home sales, prices, and inventory all dropped from August.

    However, in September prices had their third consecutive month-over-month drop, falling 2.2%. Home sales dropped 18.8% from August, and inventory fell 3.4%. Year over year, the housing market is still showing strength, the company said, with prices up 15.9% and home sales up 8.1%.

    The National Association of Realtors (NAR) also noted a cooling in the market with a report that pending home sales – contracts signed but not yet closed – dipped 1.6% in August. NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said much of the buying occurred earlier in the summer.

    Lower sales expected

    “Sharply rising mortgage interest rates in the spring motived buyers to make purchase decisions, culminating in a six-and-a-half-year peak for sales that were finalized in August,” he said. “Moving forward, we expect lower levels of existing-home sales, but tight inventory in many markets will continue to push up home prices in the months ahead.”

    And there is little to suggest the tight inventory conditions will change anytime soon. CoreLogic, a property data firm, reports the inventory of foreclosed homes is down 33% from a year ago, meaning there are fewer distressed properties competing with homeowners trying to sell.

    According to the report there were 48,000 completed foreclosures in the U.S. in August of 2013, down from 72,000 in August 2012. That's a year-over-year decrease of 34%. On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures increased 1.3 percent, from 47,000 in July 2013.

    Putting it in context

    However, the numbers should be viewed in context. CoreLogic notes that the 48,000 completed foreclosures are sharply lower that at the height of the housing crisis, but they are still sharply higher than before the crisis began. Between 2000 and 2006 completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month. Still, for the health of the housing market, the numbers are running in the right direction.

    “The foreclosure inventory continues to improve, as exhibited by these recent numbers,” said Dr. Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. “A surge in completed foreclosures and a rise in the foreclosure inventory is unlikely given continued house price improvements and shortages of supply in many markets.”

    What it means is the housing market may maintain some balance heading into the end of the year, which should turn out to be good for everyone.

    After months of a strong and stable recovery, U.S. home sales have slowed going into Autumn and prices have dipped. Even so, inventory remains tight in man...

    The climb continues for home prices

    Cities in the west continue to lead the way

    Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months during June, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

    The latest data shows that on a year-over-year basis, June was a better month for price hikes than May. The National Home Price Index, which covers all nine U.S. census divisions, recorded a 4.5% annual increase in June versus a 4.4% increase in May.

    The 10-City Composite had marginally lower year-over-year gains, with an increase of 4.6% year-over-year. The 20-City Composite year-over-year pace was virtually flat, rising 5.0% year-over-year.

    Way out west

    Denver, San Francisco, and Dallas reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities with price increases of 10.2%, 9.5%, and 8.2%, respectively. Eleven cities reported greater price increases in the year ending June 2015 over the year ending May 2015.

    Denver is the only city with a double digit increase, and Phoenix and Detroit had the longest streaks of year-over-year increases. Phoenix reported a 4.1% in June 2015, the seventh consecutive year-over-year increase. Detroit recorded 5.7% in June 2015, the sixth consecutive year-over-year increase.

    “Nationally, home prices continue to rise at a 4-5% annual rate, two to three times the rate of inflation,” said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “While prices in San Francisco and Denver are rising far faster than those in Washington D.C., New York or Cleveland, the city-to-city price patterns are little-changed in the last year. Washington saw the smallest year-over-year gains in five of the last six months; San Francisco and Denver ranked either first or second of all cities in the last five months. The price gains have been consistent as the unemployment rate declined with steady inflation and an unchanged Fed policy."

    Month-over-month

    Before seasonal adjustment, the National index and 20-City Composite both reported gains of 1.0% month-over-month in June. The 10-City Composite posted a month-over-month gain of 0.9%. After seasonal adjustment, the National index posted a gain of 0.1% while the 10-City and 20-City Composites were both down 0.1% month-over-month.

    All 20 cities reported increases in June before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, nine were down, nine were up, and two were unchanged.

    FHFA prices

    Separately the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI) shows prices were up 1.2% in the second quarter -- the 16th consecutive quarterly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index. FHFA's seasonally adjusted monthly index for June was up 0.2% from May. House prices rose 5.4% from a year earlier.

    "Home price growth in the second quarter once again far exceeded the pace of overall inflation, even as mortgage rates drifted upwards," said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. "Although too early to tell whether it's a sign of a slowdown, the monthly appreciation rate in June was more modest than we have seen in a while."

    Report highlights

    • Home prices rose in every state between the second quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2015. The top five areas in annual appreciation: 1) Colorado – 10.6%, 2) Nevada – 10.5%, 3) Florida – 9.7%, 4) Hawaii – 9.5% and 5) Washington – 8.8%.
    • Among the 100 most-populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., four-quarter price increases were greatest in San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, Calif., where prices increased by 18.3%. Prices were weakest in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, Pa.-N.J., where they fell -1.1%.
    • Of the nine census divisions, the South Atlantic division experienced the strongest increase in the second quarter, posting a 1.7% quarterly increase and a 6.1% increase since last year. House price appreciation was weakest in the Middle Atlantic division, where prices were flat in the second quarter.

    The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

    The complete report is avaliable on the FHFA website.

    Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months during June, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller http://us.spindices.com/ Home P...

    Housing affordability slips in third quarter

    California leads the way in lack of affordability

    Rising home prices and interest rates produced a slight decline in housing affordability in the third quarter according to the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI), which was released today.

    The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) shows 62.2% of new and existing homes sold between the beginning of July and end of September were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $65,800. That's down 1% from the second quarter.

    The national median home price increased slightly from $230,000 in the second quarter to $231,000 in the third quarter. Meanwhile, average mortgage rates edged higher -- from 3.99% to 4.18% in the same period.

    "The decline in the index was slight and affordability remains good," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "With mortgage rates near historic lows and home prices advancing at a modest pace, this is an excellent time to buy."

    Most affordable markets

    Syracuse, N.Y., was rated the nation's most affordable major housing market, switching places with Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Pa., which fell to the second slot on the list. In Syracuse, 91.7% of all new and existing homes sold in this year's third quarter were affordable to families, earning the area's median income of $68,500.

    Rounding out the top five affordable major housing markets in respective order were Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa.; Indianapolis-Carmel, Ind.; and Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

    Meanwhile, Glens Falls, N.Y. claimed the title of most affordable small housing market. There, 92.6% of homes sold during the quarter were affordable to families, earning the area's median income of $65,400.

    Smaller markets joining Glens Falls at the top of the list included Sandusky, Ohio; Kokomo, Ind.; Springfield, Ohio; and Rockford, Ill.

    Least affordable markets

    For the 12th consecutive quarter, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, Calif. was the nation's least affordable major housing market. There, just 10.5% of homes sold in the third quarter were affordable to families, earning the area's median income of $103,400.

    Other major metros at the bottom of the affordability chart were located in California. In descending order, they included Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale.; Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine.; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara.; and Santa Rosa-Petaluma.

    All five of the least affordable small housing markets were also in California. At the very bottom of the affordability chart was Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Calif., where 16.5% of all new and existing homes sold were affordable to families, earning the area's median income of $87,000. Other small markets at the lowest end of the affordability scale included Salinas; Napa; San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles; and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, respectively.

    "Attractive home prices and interest rates, along with firming job growth, are helping housing markets across the country to gradually improve," said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo. "While this bodes well for housing in the coming year, builders continue to face challenges, including a lack of available lots and skilled labor."

    Rising home prices and interest rates produced a slight decline in housing affordability in the third quarter according to the National Association of Home...

    Can you cash in on the housing rebound?

    Maybe, but not the way you did before the Great Recession

    The real estate market has come a long way from the depths of the Great Recession, which froze sales and sent home values plunging. Now, both sales and prices are rising.

    That point was driven home earlier this month when CoreLogic reported that home prices nationwide, including foreclosures and short-sales, increased 11.9% in June, year-over-year. It was the 16th straight monthly increase in home prices. Though prices in most markets are not back to where they were at the height of the housing bubble, the rebound is presenting some people the opportunity to cash in, in one way or another.

    The most obvious way to cash in is to put your home up for sale. If you bought before 2003, when prices began to surge, you may have regained a lot of your lost equity. That lost equity may have prevented you from putting your house on the market over the last few years.

    Now's the time

    “Now may be the time to do it,” said Pat Esswein, who writes about real estate for personal finance publication Kiplinger. “It certainly is a quicker process, and in many markets you can sell for more money than you could a year or two ago.”

    Of course, all real estate is local. It's possible that market conditions where you live haven't fully recovered. But if you live in one of the hardest hit markets, you may have recovered quite a bit of equity.

    “In Phoenix, for example, they've seen home process rocket up, by more than 20% in some cases,” Esswein said. “But that's somewhat unusual. But at least prices in most markets are moving in the right direction. Homes are appreciating in value to some degree. There are still a lot of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages. They'll probably have to wait some time yet before they have enough equity to allow them to sell.”

    One reason prices have recovered is the short supply of homes for sale. Over the last year foreclosures have slowed considerably. Those underwater homeowners can't sell. That means you might be able to sell your home quickly but might not be able to find another house right away. That can raise problems for the seller.

    Make choices

    “You may have to eliminate some things from your wish list or you may have to broaden the geographic scope or your search,” Esswein said. “If you feel you're going to need more time to find something, many sellers are asking the purchasers to do what's known as a lease-back arrangement, where the seller can rent back their current home for some period of time after settlement.”

    But that isn't always feasible. The buyer might not have the luxury of waiting three months before taking possession of the property.

    Selling your home is not the only way to cash in on the recovering market. Many homeowners have refinanced, taking advantage of historically low interest rates. The lower rates have resulted in lower monthly payments, in effect putting money in the homeowner's pocket every month.

    “People have been refinancing right along as rates dropped to historic lows,” Esswein said. “And even though there has been some volatility over the last few months, rates still are historically low.”

    Lower payment is primary goal

    When most people refinance their mortgages these days, they are doing so to lower their payments. By and large they are more likely to pay down principal at closing, rather than take out equity in cash.

    “If you have equity you could do a cash-out refi, but of course when you take cash out, you are reducing your equity in the home and increasing the risk to the lender, so they charge you a premium,” Esswein said.

    During the housing bubble millions of consumers did, in fact, take cash out of their homes when they refinanced. After all, it was generally assumed that the value of real estate would always go up.

    Of course, it didn't. The resulting housing crash left many people who once had a lot of equity in their homes with negative equity. A number of those cases ended in foreclosure.

    Will history repeat itself? Esswein says it's not likely. Lenders are a lot more prudent than they once were – and so in fact are homeowners. Still, the recovering housing market may allow some homeowners to “cash in,” even if it means just being able to finally sell their homes.

    The real estate market has come a long way from the depths of the Great Recession, which froze sales and sent home values plunging. Now, both sales and pri...

    Interest rates vs. home prices: which one is too high?

    High-interest debt is bad. High-principal debt can be worse.

    If you’ve been paying attention to post-housing bubble American economic news, you’ve probably noticed two consistent (and contradictory) stories that keep appearing. The first story says “Home builders and sellers mourn that Americans aren’t buying enough houses, or aren’t paying enough for them.” The second story: “Americans seeking a place to live mourn that the rent [and other housing costs] is too damn high.”

    Anyway, we recently reported that American mortgage applications have dropped for the second week in a row; the number of applications in the week ending Nov. 8 was a whopping 1.8 percent lower than the previous week’s number of applications.

    And soon after that article went up, we read an unintentionally bizarre article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, headlined “D. R. Horton CEO: Somebody please tell home buyers rates are still low.”

    D. R. Horton is a Texas-based homebuilding company and, as you can probably guess from the headline, the gist of the story is that Horton’s CEO is not happy that his sales dropped two percent in the previous year, and he speculated maybe fewer Americans are buying homes because they/we are just too clueless to understand that interest rates are still quite low by historical standards, which presumably means we’re supposed to BUY BUY BUY!

    Meanwhile, BusinessWeek thinks a recent one-point increase in interest rates might be sufficient to explain the “low” number of American home sales. Check out this quote:

    …. buyers might also be getting a little better at mortgage math, given the brutal lessons the real estate market doled out in 2008 and 2009. A single percentage point over three decades adds up fast.

    Take the average D.R. Horton home. A year ago, it sold for $227,304, which a buyer could have financed for 30 years at around 3.38 percent, according to Freddie Mac. Recently, it sold for $261,400, and buyers probably locked in a rate around 4.49 percent.

    The difference in sales price is only $34,096, but the 2013 buyer will end up paying about $104,000 more over the life of the loan, including an additional $64,000 or so in interest payments.

    Lot of money

    There’s no denying: $64,000 is a lot of money, even spread out over 30 years. But we’re more interested in this statistic: the price of a typical D. R. Horton home rose nearly 15 percent in one year, an increase more suited to the exuberant housing bubble era than the contemporary low-wage/high job insecurity American economy.

    Which is not to say higher interest rates aren’t a factor at all; another undeniable fact is that interest rates and finance charges are important factors to consider, when you’re taking out a loan. As we’ve noted before: one of the most common and costly financial mistakes people make is that when they take out a loan, they only look at the size of their weekly or monthly payment rather than calculate the overall cost of repaying the debt.

    But is there anything besides interest rates and financing costs you should worry about? Yes: the principal. The size of the original debt itself. We’re even heretical enough to believe the size of the principal matters more than the interest rate. After all: if you have a high-interest-rate mortgage debt, you can probably refinance it into a lower-rate debt once overall interest rates go down. However (as countless “underwater” mortgage-holders have discovered to their sorrow), refinancing, say, a $200,000 debt so that you only owe $100,000 is rarely if ever an option.

    In pre-housing bubble America, the conventional wisdom for mortgage affordability used to say “For long-term fixed-rate mortgages, you can afford a loan equal to three times your annual income, after making a down payment of at least 20 percent” alongside “Your total monthly housing costs should not exceed one-third of your available income.”

    So maybe we can blame D. R. Horton’s disappointing sales numbers on wannabe home buyers with unrealistic interest-rate expectations. However, we’d like to think it’s because more people are crunching the numbers and deciding “As a median American family living on the median American household income of just over $50,000 per year, we can’t afford a $260,000 mortgage debt no matter how low of an interest rate we get on it.”

    Or maybe not. On the same day BusinessWeek reported the Horton CEO’s dissatisfaction with the previous year’s sales numbers, Forbes.com reported that “D. R. Horton’s order book grows,” while the company’s revenue climbed to $1.82 billion.

    No surprise there, really: a two percent drop in sales plus a 15 percent increase in sale prices still equals healthy growth for the seller.

    If you’ve been paying attention to post-housing bubble American economic news, you’ve probably noticed two consistent (and contradictory) stories that keep...

    May was a good month for home price appreciation

    Housing is seen as an 'oasis of stability'

    If you own a home, chances are good that you saw it rise in value -- again.

    Property information provider CoreLogic reports housing prices were up in May both year-over-year and month-over-month.

    The CoreLogic Home Price Index (HPI) jumped by 5.9% from the same month a year ago, and was up 1.3% from April.

    “Housing remained an oasis of stability in May with home prices rising year over year between 5% and 6% for 22 consecutive months,” said CoreLogic Chief Economist Dr. Frank Nothaft. “The consistently solid growth in home prices has been driven by the highest resale activity in nine years and a still-tight housing inventory.”

    Looking ahead

    The CoreLogic HPI Forecast projects a year-over-year rise of 5.3% for May 2017, and a 0.8% increase from May 2016 to June 2016.

    The forecast is a projection of home prices using the CoreLogic HPI and other economic variables. Values are derived from state-level forecasts by weighting indices according to the number of owner-occupied households for each state.

    “Housing remained an oasis of stability in May with home prices rising year over year between 5% and 6% for 22 consecutive months,” said CoreLogic Chief Economist Dr. Frank Nothaft. “The consistently solid growth in home prices has been driven by the highest resale activity in nine years and a still-tight housing inventory.”

    “Price appreciation continues to be fairly broad-based across the U.S.,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “From a regional perspective, the Pacific Northwest continues to be the hottest area for home-price growth, with Oregon and Washington leading the way. The recent turbulence in financial markets should lead to modestly lower mortgage rates, which will provide even more support to the steadily improving real estate recovery.”

    If you own a home, chances are good that you saw it rise in value -- again.Property information provider CoreLogic reports housing prices were up in Ma...

    Home prices climb again in July

    Hardest hit areas are leading the way

    The latest Home Price Index (HPI) report released by CoreLogic suggests there's no end in sight to the increase in home prices.

    Home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- shot up 12.4% in July from the same month a year ago. That marks the 17th consecutive monthly year-over-year increase in home prices nationally. On a monthly basis, prices in July rose 1.8% from the previous month.

    Distressed sales include short sales and real estate owned (REO) transactions

    When distressed sales are taken out of the mix, prices a year-over-year basis were up 11.4% in July and -- on a month-over-month basis -- prices posted an increase of 1.7% in July 2013.

    "Home prices continue to climb across the nation in July with markets hit hardest during the downturn leading the way," said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. "Nationally, home prices are now within 18 percent of their peak levels reached in April of 2006."

    Report highlights

    The CoreLogic HPI report also found:

    • Including distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were: Nevada (+27%), California (+23.2%), Arizona (+17%), Wyoming (+16.4%) and Oregon (+15%).
    • Including distressed sales, this month only one state posted home price depreciation: Delaware (-1.3%).
    • Excluding distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were: Nevada (+24.2%), California (+20.2%), Arizona (+14.9%), Utah (+13.5%) and Florida (+13.5%).
    • Excluding distressed sales, no states posted home price depreciation in July.
    • Of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population, 99 were showing year-over-year increases in July, the same as in June.

    Looking ahead

    The CoreLogic Pending HPI indicates that August 2013 home prices -- including distressed sales -- will rise by 12.3% on a year-over-year basis from August 2012 and by 0.4% on a month-over-month basis from July. Excluding distressed sales, August 2013 home prices are poised to rise 12.2% year over year from August 2012 and by 1.2% month over month.

    "Home prices continued to surge in July," said Dr. Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. "Looking ahead to the second half of the year, price growth is expected to slow as seasonal demand wanes and higher mortgage rates have a marginal impact on home purchase demand."

    Mortgage applications

    Mortgage applications rose last week for the first time in a month.

    According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending August 30, applications were up 1.3% from the previous week.

    The Refinance Index, meanwhile, was up 2%. That put the refinance share of mortgage activity increased at 61% -- up 1% from the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity fell to 7%, while the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) share of refinance applications increased to 38%, up 3 % from the week before and the highest since MBA started tracking it in early 2012.

    Interest rates

    The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased to 4.73% from 4.80% for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

    The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) decreased to 4.71% from 4.78% for 80%. The effective rate decreased from last week. This is the second consecutive week that the 30-year fixed interest rate for jumbo loans has been lower than the 30-year fixed rate for conforming loans.

    The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA decreased to 4.48% from 4.52% for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

    The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.75% from 3.84% for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

    The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs decreased to 3.49% from 3.50% for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

    The latest Home Price Index (HPI) report released by CoreLogic suggests there's no end in sight to the increase in home prices. Home prices nationwide --...

    Five signs the economy is improving

    This time, could the economy finally be turning the corner?

    Since 2010, we've been down this road several times. The economy shows signs of finally turning the corner, only to fall back to an anemic growth rate.

    That could be the case again, but there seem to be five indicators that – in spite of the end of the payroll tax holiday and the federal budget sequester -- the economy is showing real signs of life.

    Let's start on Wall Street. The stock market has rallied strongly since January with both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 both hitting all time highs in May.

    Much of the rally can be attributed to the Federal Reserve's policy of pumping money into the economy. But the Fed policy has been consistent for some time now. It's only been this year that stocks have taken off.

    Why is this important? Because in past recessions, stocks have been a leading indicator for the overall economy. Investors seem to sense when things are turning around and the market surges about six months before the economy takes off.

    Housing market

    One of the more impressive recoveries has been in the housing market, which was devastated by the credit crisis, wave of foreclosures and Great Recession. In many housing markets in the U.S., home sales are rapidly rising and so are prices.

    In its most recent MarketPulse report, CoreLogic found that the housing market is recovering, but doing so unevenly. The over-bought and beaten-down markets are recovering the fastest.

    Most markets have reached consistent price recoveries in only the last year or two, the report finds. But the real estate recovery remains a local event and a shift is occurring.

    Previously, it was the low prices of foreclosures and short sales that drove the market. Now it's new home sales. The recovery in that area, the report notes, is acting like a targeted economic stimulus package because it's leading to more construction jobs and sales of building materials.

    Auto Sales

    The mini-boom in new home construction has led to increased sales of trucks, helping the automotive industry enjoy an even stronger recovery. Auction prices for full-size pickup trucks are up nearly seven percent through the first four months of 2013, according to the NADA Used Car Guide.

    "The recovery of home values and increased residential construction, stabilizing gasoline prices and a decline in late-model supply have resulted in higher trade-in values for full-size pickups," said Jonathan Banks, executive automotive analyst for the Guide.

    New trucks are also selling well. Sales of the Dodge Ram helped boost Chrysler's April sales 11 percent higher. Ford and GM also had strong April sales. Sales of the Ford Escape rose 52% while GM saw a 28% rise in sales of its Silverado pick-up.

    Auto sales have remained consistently strong since the end of the Great Recession, thanks mainly to low interest rates. It's also easier for consumers to borrow money for a car or truck – something that hasn't been true for housing.

    Retail Sales

    Make no mistake, retail sales – a measure of consumer activity – are  nothing to celebrate. Sales fell in March, with economists chalking it up to the sequester and higher taxes.

    But in April, when more of the same was expected, the nation's retailers actually eked out a 0.1% gain. Core retail sales, which exclude cars, gasoline and building materials, were up a much stronger 0.5%.

    Since retail sales account for about 30% of what consumers spend, the increase – small as it is – is being viewed as a hopeful sign.

    Summer travel

    Consumers may be spending more money on vacations this summer. TripAdvisor, a travel site, surveyed 1,200 U.S. consumers and predicts a 30% are planning to travel over the Memorial Day weekend. It also found 86% plan to take a trip during the summer.

    Fifty-three percent of those who plan to travel this summer plan to spend the same on their trip this year, while 25% expect to spend more. Travelers are also looking for savings – 71% said they would take a spontaneous trip if they find a last-minute deal.

    Despite these positive indicators, not all economists are sold on the idea of a recovery that has finally taken hold. Kathy Bostjancic, Director of Macroeconomic Analysis at The Conference Board, doesn't see a lot of optimism in recent indicators, especially retail sales.

    “The combined fiscal drag from the increased payroll tax rate and sequester spending cuts total $225 billion for this year, which offsets the positive wealth effect created by the rise in equity prices and appreciation in home prices over the past year,” she said. “The spring swoon comes after a winter spending spree of which the window of retail opportunity has apparently closed.”

    Bostjancic said she wants to see a pick-up of job and income growth in the second half of 2013 before declaring that things are finally getting better.

    Since 2010, we've been down this road several times. The economy shows signs of finally turning the corner, only to fall back to an anemic growth rate.Th...