WASHINGTON -- Real estate markets in most of the country improved steadily between November and April, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Tuesday.

The agency's index of real estate activity, based on a survey of financial institution examiners and liquidators, showed the same level of improvement in April as in a previous report three months earlier.

The glaring exception to the good news was the West, particularly California, which has had the worst commercial and residential property markets for a year.

The FDIC takes the pulse of real estate markets every three months by surveying nearly 450 top real estate professionals at the regulatory agencies.

Index Unchanged

On a scale of one to 100, the overall real estate index stood at 66 for February through April, unchanged from November through January. This means that the markets in general were holding to a steady pace of improvement, better than the 57 registered in the quarter prior to November.

A score above 50 means respondents see real estate improving; below 50, markets are declining. The closer to 100, the more consensus there is that real estate values are improving.

If the markets' improvement had leveled off, the score would have been 50, said James L. Freund, the FDIC's chief of financial and industry analysis. "It's not a cumulative index; it's just what's happened in the last three months." Residential markets are improving much faster than commercial.

The residential index hit 74, up from 73 in January. The healthiest regions, the South and Midwest, weighed in at 86 and 84, respectively. The West had the lowest score at 54.

The commercial real estate index was 57 in April, the same measure of improvement as in January. Again, the South and the Midwest led with scores of 67 and 61 respectively, and the West trailed at 44.

While the South remained the strongest region overall for the seventh consecutive quarter, the Midwest showed the most improvement. Its composite score of 73 was its best since the FDIC began these surveys in April 1991. Residential markets there improved to 84 from 77 in January, while commercial markets improved to 61 from 58.

The Northeast index reported its second straight solid gain. Its composite score of 64 was only two points below the 66 posted in January.

"Property values appear to have bottomed out in many markets in the Northeast, the FDIC said. But the agency reported no increase in demand for office space nationwide and noted that rent concessions continue to be made in many markets.

The West's composite score dipped to 50 from 51 in January while residential real estate slipped to 54 from 55. The rating of commercial real estate held steady at 44.

If California were excluded from the 13 states that make up the Western region, the FDIC said the area "outperformed the national average."

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