Home sales fall as prices, loan rates rise

WASHINGTON — Sales of previously occupied U.S. homes fell in February as competition for a near-record low number of properties on the market drove prices higher and rising mortgage rates kept would-be buyers on the sidelines.

Existing home sales fell 7.2 percent last month from January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.02 million, the National Association of Realtors said March 18. That’s less than the roughly 6.1 million sales that economists had been expecting, according to FactSet.

Sales declined 2.4 percent from February 2021 as the median home price jumped 15 percent from last year at this time to $357,300.

Home prices are surging as potential buyers compete for relatively fewer homes available, even with a modest seasonal increase in properties on the market ahead of the spring homebuying season.

“As a buyer, it’s still a struggle to get into the market with the lack of inventory,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist.

The number of homes for sale at the end of February totaled just 870,000. That’s just 2.4 percent above the record low set in January on data going back to 1999. The inventory of unsold homes was down 15.5 percent from February 2021.

At the current sales pace, the low level of for-sale properties amounts to a 1.7-month supply, the NAR said.

On average, homes sold in 18 days of hitting the market last month. It was 19 days in January. In a market that’s more evenly balanced between buyers and sellers, homes typically remain on the market 45 days.

A quarter of all homes sold last month were purchased with cash, down from 27% in January, NAR said.

Housing market demand looks to remain healthy this year, bolstered by ongoing demographic change as younger millennials and Gen-Zers come of age and look to become homeowners. But with housing in short supply since well before the pandemic and now higher interest rates, the limits of what house hunters can afford will be constrained, especially first-time buyers.

Refloat plan released for stranded ship

BALTIMORE — There’s now a plan to refloat a cargo ship that’s been stranded in the Chesapeake Bay for days, the ship’s operator said March 18.

Salvor Donjon Smit has conducted underwater inspections of the 1,095-foot Ever Forward and a rescue team can put the refloating plan in motion, but first authorities must approve it, Evergreen said in a statement.

The plan involves releasing ballast to lighten the load, dredging the bay’s muddy floor around the ship and making space between the propeller and rudder and the seabed, Evergreen said.

The rescue team is mobilizing all available local tugboats to join the operation. Once enough mud is removed and the ship is lighter, the team will work to refloat the ship at high tide using the power of the tugboats and the ship’s main engine, Evergreen said.

The Ever Forward was headed from the Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., when it ran aground Sunday night north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the U.S. Coast Guard said. The ship operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp. went aground outside the main navigation corridor, the Craighill Channel, and officials said there were no reports of injuries, damage or pollution.

The Coast Guard has said officials have not yet determined what caused the Ever Forward to run aground. It is not blocking any navigation, unlike its sister vessel, the Ever Given, which caused global supply-chain problems when it blocked traffic for days in the Suez Canal nearly a year ago.

LL Bean sales rose by 14% last year

FREEPORT, Maine — A greater interest in the outdoors during the pandemic helped to drive double-digit revenue growth for L.L. Bean, allowing the board to provide a healthy bonus for employees March 18.

Sales grew by 14 percent during the retailer’s 2021 fiscal year, the biggest gain since 1993, and a cash bonus of 12 percent was awarded to all 5,500 full- and part-time workers, officials said.

CEO Steve Smith, who praised staffers for their resilience in dealing with the pandemic, supply-chain issues and other challenges. said the retailer increased the volume of orders from vendors as shoppers began snapping up outdoors gear at the start of the health crisis.

The company boasted double-digit growth categories including active clothing and athleisure; outerwear and active footwear; camping and hiking; winter sports; and travel. All told, the company recorded sales of $1.8 billion, a new record, building on last year’s 5 percent growth, officials said.

VW recalls SUVs over braking issue

DETROIT — Volkswagen is recalling more than 246,000 SUVs in the U.S. and Canada because faulty wiring harnesses can make them brake unexpectedly, sometimes while in traffic.

The recall comes three days after the Associated Press reported that 47 people had complained to U.S. safety regulators about the problem, some reporting nearly being rear-ended by other vehicles. Many reported that warning lights and alarms would go off, the driver’s side windows would roll down and the SUVs would suddenly brake while in traffic.

VW said in documents posted March 18 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that the recall covers certain Atlas SUVs from the 2019-2023 model years and the 2020-2023 Atlas Cross Sport.

The documents say the electrical contacts on a wiring harness in either of the front doors can corrode, interrupting electrical connections. The problem can cause the side air bags to deploy late in a crash, and the parking brake can come on unexpectedly.

The documents said a repair is being developed. Owners will get letters telling them of the safety risk starting May 10, and a second one will be sent when the remedy is available.

NLRB wants Amazon to reinstate fired worker

NEW YORK — A federal labor board is seeking to reinstate an Amazon employee who was fired in the early days of the pandemic after leading a protest calling for the company to do more to protect workers against COVID-19.

Gerald Bryson, who worked at an Amazon warehouse in the New York City borough of Staten Island, helped lead the April 2020 protest. Frank Kearl, Bryson’s attorney, said while off the job during the protest, Bryson got into a dispute with another worker. Amazon later fired him for violating its vulgar-language policy.

Bryson filed an unfair labor practice case in 2020, claiming Amazon retaliated against him. Later that year, the National Labor Relations Board said it found merit in the complaint.

Amazon workers are pushing to unionize at the Staten Island warehouse where Bryson worked and at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

The Staten Island facility will start in-person voting in April on whether to form a union, while those in Bessemer are currently casting mail ballots. Kelly Nantel, a spokesperson for Amazon, questioned the timing of the decision ahead of the vote, saying “they’ve known the facts in this case for over 18 months.”

“They’re fighting to protect behavior that no employer or co-worker should have to tolerate,” Nantel said.

If the court approves the labor board’s request, Bryson would be able to return to his job at Amazon.