NEW YORK — In another sign the housing crisis could be reaching the bottom, home prices dropped sharply in February but for the first time in 25 months the decline was not a record.
The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index released Tuesday showed home prices in 20 major cities tumbled by 18.6 percent from February 2008. That was slightly better than January's 19 percent and the first time since January 2007 the index didn't set a record.
"We've seen early signs of over the last couple of months of some stabilization, particularly in the markets that were hardest hit," Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan said.
But the good news was mixed. All 20 cities in the report showed monthly and annual price declines, but half recorded annual records. Prices fell by more than 10 percent in 15 cities, including Las Vegas, San Francisco and Phoenix. In fact, Phoenix home prices have lost more than half their value since peaking in July 2006.
Yet, nine of the metros _ including Dallas, Denver and Boston _ showed improvement in their yearly losses compared to the month before.
"We will certainly need a few more months of data before we can determine if home prices are finally turning around," said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the S&P index committee.
Rich Patterson, a Dallas RE/MAX agent, said in the last two months he's seen a lot of first-time homebuyers interested in homes up to $250,000. He attributes the increase to low interest rates and the $8,000 tax credit.
"The buyers are still getting good deals, but they're not stealing properties," said Patterson, noting that sellers are cutting their asking price about 4 percent to snag a deal.
Last week, home sales data for March also contained some glimmers of hope for a turnaround. Existing home sales fell just 3 percent from February to March, and new home sales seemed to have hit bottom.
Consumers overall are becoming more optimistic about the economy. The Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index jumped more than 12 points to 39.2, blowing past economists' expectations of 29.5.