Decline of Atlanta home prices slowing

Across the nation home prices fell at the fastest annual rate on record in the first quarter, but in metro Atlanta declines have slowed, according to a widely watched measure.

The latest Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller National Home Price Index showed average metro home prices dropped about 1 percent in March from the month before, hitting values not seen since late 2000. Year over year, average metro prices have fallen 16 percent.

But at least one local expert said Tuesday that February was the bottom of the market, and prices are starting to rebound.

"Case-Shiller is a great survey, but you just can't read too much into that," said Steve Palm, president of SmartNumbers, a real estate research firm in Marietta. "February was still the bottom, and I say that because we have every [home loan] closing tracked, so I know February was the bottom."

Palm said the average April sale price was up $10,000 over March, which is "a very good sign."

National real estate watchers, however, are not as optimistic as Palm.

"We see no evidence that a recovery in home prices has begun," said, David M. Blitzer, chairman of the S&P/Case-Shiller index committee.

The index reported home prices nationally tumbled by 19.1 percent in the first quarter, the most in its 21-year history. Home prices have fallen 32.2 percent since peaking in the second quarter of 2006 and are at levels not seen since the end of 2002.

Since cresting in 2007, metro Atlanta's average price has dropped 21 percent, compared to Los Angeles, where prices have plunged nearly 40 percent, or Las Vegas, where average prices have been almost cut in half.

Local construction was at or near the top of the national charts during the past two decades and because of that metro Atlanta prices have never soared the way they did in "bubble" areas such as Las Vegas, southern California or even Florida. In those areas, the bursting of the bubble has meant a more dramatic deflation in prices.

Still, the national index shows metro Atlanta prices are about where they were nine years ago, while prices are back to the levels of fall 2003 in Los Angeles and 2002 in Las Vegas.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.