Mortgage rates are at all time low levels and people in California are buying houses again…So what is the problem? To start, home foreclosure rates continue to break records and California loan modification filings are rising each month. Yale University economist Robert Shiller, co-author of the now closely monitored S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, and, to be sure, no friend of realtors, says the data suggests the housing market is on the mend. “The sense that something is changing is definitely in the air,” Shiller told Bloomberg News after the release of June’s housing data. “After three years of decline, we might be seeing a turnaround.” Shiller, along with economist Karl Case, developed the index, which tracks housing data in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas. In June, only two cities, Detroit, hard hit by auto lay-offs, and Las Vegas, slumping as consumers nix trips to the gambling capital, registered May-to-June price declines.

L.A., Miami, Phoenix Start to Rebound?

Meanwhile 18 cities registered May-to-June price increases. Just as telling: the hard hit metro-areas registered price gains: Los Angeles, up 1.1 %; Miami, up 0.5 %; Tampa, up 0.4 %; and Phoenix, up 1.1 %. Economists says that because the California, Florida, Arizona/Nevada regions sustained the largest and most extensive home price declines, they’ll probably snap-back first and telegraph the start of the broader U.S. housing sector recovery.

Also, nationally, U.S. home prices increased 2.9 % in Q2 compared to Q1 — the first quarterly gain in two years, according to Case-Shiller data. On a seasonally adjusted basis, prices rose 1.4 % in Q2 compared to Q1.

Another data point to support the housing recovery thesis? U.S. new home sales increased in three U.S. regions in July, according to U.S. Commerce Department data. Sales surged 32 % in the Northeast, jumped 16 % in the South, and rose 1 % in the West; they fell 7.6 % in the Midwest, a region that, again, is still coping with large structural changes stemming from the U.S. auto sector’s downsizing and restructuring.

A third metric supporting a housing rebound? Inventories of new homes fell to 271,000 in July, the Commerce Department said — a 35.4 % decline since July 2008. That’s a 7.5-month supply at the current sales rate, down from an 8.8-month supply in June. The 7.5-month supply is still above the normal three-to-five month supply, but economists and housing statisticians say the rate of inventory decline is just as important as inventory levels now. If inventories continue to drop by a 1-month supply each month, it won’t be long before home construction firms say ‘It’s time to start building some homes before our inventory gets too low and we lose sales because of lack of choice for customers.’

What’s driving the turnaround in home prices? Most economists say the federal government’s $8,000 income tax credit for first-time home buyers and comparatively low interest rates have played a role, but the large factor remains the market pricing mechanism. Home prices have dropped so much that, those home buyers with decent job security and good credit are calculating, given the slim chance of picking an absolute bottom for home prices, that now represents a decent time to purchase that home.

Housing Analysis: The $64,000 question – make that the $210,000 question, given the median price of a new U.S. home – is: should prospective home buyers purchase now?

Unless you’ve found your dream house or are otherwise forced to buy, I’d wait until late fall. Summer data typically distorts home sales to the upside, as many families move then, when school is out. The $8,000 tax credit, which applies to homes bought before November 1, also is aiding sales. In other words, prices could retrench. However, if home prices and sales continue to rise into the autumn season in your region of the U.S., that’s a sign that a housing bottom is forming, and a home purchase then would make sense, from a price standpoint.