By Yawen Chen and Se Young Lee
(Reuters) - China's new home price growth slowed in February from the previous month as a raft of government curbs aimed at tempering speculative demand softened prices in the biggest cities, although strength seen in smaller centers remained intact.
Average new home prices in China's 70 major cities rose 0.2 percent in February from the previous month, compared with an increase of 0.3 percent in January, Reuters' calculations from National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) data on Monday showed.
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Compared with a year ago, they rose 5.2 percent in the month, picking up from a 5.0 percent increase in January.
Prices fell in China's top-tier cities after they stabilized in January, the NBS said in a statement accompanying the data, without giving a specific figure.
Shenzhen's new home prices fell 0.6 percent month-on-month, after it stabilized in January. Beijing prices declined 0.3 percent after posting a 0.2 percent increase in the previous month, data showed.
"I think the policies currently in place (to curb speculation) are effective in a way that they made prices fall slightly in prime markets," said ING economist Iris Pang.
"But they also result in a spillover effect that drives buyers who can't afford in those big cities to less expensive markets, which will continue to push up prices," she said, adding that she doesn't expect significant price falls in the biggest cities, despite the curbs.
The majority of the 70 cities surveyed by the NBS still reported monthly price increases for new homes although the number has dropped from the previous month. Forty-four cities reported higher prices in February, down from January's 52.
The declines in the four top-tier cities contrast with a steady rise in prices in China's vast spread of smaller cities. The fastest price gain was seen in Nanchong, a lower-tier city of about 6 million in Southwestern China's Sichuan province, where values of new homes rose 1.7 percent on-month in February.
Price growth in tier-3 cities in general was unchanged from January, the NBS said, without giving details.
China removed sales prices for affordable housing in its January calculations, which prevents like-for-like comparisons with growth data before 2018.
Home price growth began to slow in the second half of 2017 as the government sought to deal with bubbles in its property markets, following almost two years of rapid expansion.
Property sales have shown signs of easing in recent months despite expectations of a spike in demand as developers ramp up promotions during the week-long Lunar New Year holidays when migrant workers head home.
But analysts have remained optimistic about demand in smaller tier-3 and tier-4 cities thanks to favorable government policies aimed at reducing inventories.
Authorities are seeking to balance attempts to support real economic activity with efforts to rein in risks from an increasingly complex financial system.
Household loans - mainly mortgages - increased by 275.1 billion yuan in February, well below expectations and sharply down on January's record of 901.6 billion yuan.
On Monday, Chinese housing minister Wang Menghui said the government would step up property market regulation and fight off illegal conduct by property firms and intermediaries.
Policymakers have vowed to push the stable and healthy development of the property market this year, emphasizing that homes are for living in, not speculative investment.
China will focus more on providing affordable housing and developing the rental market, Premier Li Keqiang announced earlier this month.
The country is also steadily pushing for a property tax law this year and expect it completed by 2020.
(Reporting by Yawen Chen, Zhang Min and Se Young Lee; Editing by Sam Holmes)