By DEREK KRAVITZ, AP Real Estate Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. home prices are falling again in most major cities after posting small gains over the summer and spring. The report suggests the troubled housing market remains weak and won't recover any time soon.
The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index released Tuesday showed prices dropped in September from August in 17 of the 20 cities tracked. That was the first decline after five straight months in which at least half the cities in the survey showed monthly gains.
A separate index for the July-September quarter shows prices were mostly unchanged from the previous quarter.
Americans are reluctant to purchase a home more than two years after the recession officially ended. High unemployment and weak job growth have deterred many would-be buyers. Even the lowest mortgage rates in history haven't been enough to lift sales.
David M. Blitzer, chairman of S&P's index committee, said that while the steep price declines seen between 2007 and 2009 appear to be over, home prices are down from the same time last year and do not show signs of easing.
"Any chance for a sustained recovery will probably need a stronger economy," Blitzer said.
The largest monthly price declines were in Atlanta, San Francisco and Tampa, Fla. And prices in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix fell to their lowest points since the housing crisis began four years ago. Blitzer called the new lows reached in those three cities a "bit disturbing."
New York, Portland, Ore., and Washington were the only cities to show monthly price increases in September.
A majority of the cities tracked by the survey posted modest price increases from April through August, the peak buying months. The monthly changes are not adjusted for seasonal factors.
Even with the gains, home prices were down in all but two major cities in September from the same month one year ago.
Sales of previously occupied homes are on pace to match last year's dismal figures -- the worst in 14 years. And sales of new homes are shaping up to be the worst since the government began keeping records a half century ago.
Some people can't qualify for loans or meet higher down payment requirements. Many with good credit and stable jobs are holding off because they fear that prices will keep falling.
"Despite record high affordability of real estate, the psychology of home buyers is still being weighed down by economic uncertainty, keeping them on the fence when it comes to buying homes," said Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow.com, which measures home values.
Atlanta has been especially hard hit in the past year. Prices there dropped nearly 6 percent in September and have fallen nearly 10 percent over the past 12 months.
Since the fall of 2008, one out of every four sales in Atlanta has been a foreclosure, an auction or a bank sale.
Many homes there were built during the housing boom. The city has also been confronted by high unemployment. In September, the unemployment rate was 10.3 percent _ more than a point higher than the national average.
The Case-Shiller index covers half of all U.S. homes. It measures prices compared with those in January 2000 and creates a three-month moving average. The September data is the latest available.
Prices are certain to fall further once banks resume millions of foreclosures. They have been delayed because of a yearlong government investigation into mortgage lending practices.
Home prices had stabilized in coastal cities over the past six months, helped by a rush of spring buyers and investors. But this year, prices in many cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tampa, have reached their lowest points since the housing bust more than four years ago.
Foreclosures and short sales -- when a lender accepts less for a home than what is owed on a mortgage -- are selling at an average discount of 20 percent.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Read the Case SWhiller report here:Case Shiller Home Prices November 2011