WASHINGTON - The real estate market's retreat continued early this year for the fourth consecutive quarter, according to an April survey released Tuesday by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

In a flip from last year, it was housing rather than commercial properties that dimmed the overall market's prospects - which remained positive, but less so than in preceding surveys.

"Most of the decline was in the housing area," noted FDIC researcher James L. Freund. "Two reasons stand out: interest rates were rising and the housing recovery is just plain maturing."

Every three months the FDIC asks more than 400 federal examiners and liquidators across the country to assess residential and commercial real estate markets.

To track trends in the market, the agency compiles the opinions into three indexes. The FDIC's composite index slipped to 61 in April, off one from January but down a whopping 17 from the 78 scored in April 1994.

The housing index's year-to-year tumble was even more pronounced. At 57 the April index was just one point below the preceding one but 25 short of the year-earlier mark.

The FDIC's commercial real estate index held steady at 68 in April, down just five from a year ago.

Any score above 50 indicates that more respondents saw improvements in the market than declines. So while these numbers are falling, they are still positive. As a score moves away from 50, agreement increases about the direction the market is taking.

Interestingly, April's composite score of 61 matches the first composite index prepared by the FDIC in April 1991. Back then, the housing index was a robust 70 while commercial real estate was a limp 47. Over the last four years, the residential and commercial sectors have traded places.

"The housing recovery started earlier," Mr. Freund explained. "Commercial real estate markets didn't start recovering until much later, so they are still posting healthy gains."

FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer said the boom in commercial real estate markets is "a big plus for banks both in terms of reducing problem assets and creating new lending opportunities.

"However, the reported loss of momentum in residential markets is likely to affect the demand for home loans," she added.

Although the housing index remained positive at 57, the highest proportion of respondents in four years - 18% - observed worsening conditions. By contrast, only 3% of the examiners and liquidators cited declines in commercial real estate markets.

"Moreover, an increasing number of senior examiners and asset disposition specialists noted creeping deterioration in some basic market indicators," the FDIC report noted.

For example, 32% of those surveyed reported an excess supply of residential real estate in April, up from 28% in January. Fewer examiners reported gains in new home construction as well, the FDIC said. Finally, just 19% reported improving home sales in April, down from 51% a year ago.

Though commercial markets were stable in most regions, assessments in the Northeast were more negative. The proportion of examiners and liquidators noting improving conditions there fell to 28% from nearly 40% in January.

Gains noted in the Midwest and West, excluding California, offset the bad news in the Northeast. As for California, 93% of the respondents there reported a surplus of commercial real estate.

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