The housing market in this country continues to be dire - with economists saying it will be years before the market recovers.More Americans did sign contracts to buy homes last month - but it's not enough to signal a rebound. Sales agreements for homes rose more than 2% in February to a reading of 90.8.That's nearly 20% higher than it was in June - the low point since the housing bust. But the index needs to be at 100 to be considered "healthy".The last time it reached that was the final month Americans could qualify for the home-buying tax credit. And the news is even worse in the Northeast, which saw signings actually fall nearly 11%, while the South rose nearly 3%; 4% in the Midwest and 7% in the West.The lack of signings in the Northeast is doubly distressing considering the options for homes there. The number of vacant homes are at record levels.According to the census bureau, more than 13% of all U.S. homes are empty. This is up about 1% from 2007.And Maine has the highest proportion - with nearly a quarter of their homes being vacant. Vermont is not far behind with 20% of their housing considered empty.The caveat is that most of these homes aren't actually vacant - they're vacation or second homes, which many economists and realtors don't count as vacant. If you take those out of the equation, the South and West have the most abandoned homes with nearly 11.5% of Nevada homes being vacant.So there are plenty of options if you're buying, but people still aren't taking advantage of them.Sales of previously owned homes fell last year to the lowest level in 13 years. Sales are now just half the pace of 1963 - even though the population is up by about 120 million since then.Perhaps one of the reasons for the low-turnout of home buyers is that they feel the deck is stacked against them. Despite being bailed out by us, the taxpayer, lenders are still being incredibly tight-fisted when it comes to loans.And now some banks actually want to hike the minimum down payment requirement to 30%? That's insane.Yes, home buyers should have some skin in the game. But, the old fashioned rule of thumb of putting down 20% makes great sense.More than that is too much - and may put a nail in the coffin of the entire market.
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