Fresh evidence of nascent recovery in the housing market was delivered Tuesday by the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, which showed sequential gains for the fifth consecutive month.

The Case-Shiller index for its top 20 metro markets rose 0.3% from August to September; it rose 0.4% for the top 10 markets. Compared to September of last year, however, the 20-market index remains down 9.4%, the 10-market down 8.5%. Still, it was the first time those indices emerged from double-digit annual declines in 21 months.

Home prices across the 20 metros were at Fall, 2003 levels at the end of September.

Prices rose 3.1% for the quarter ended Sept. 30 but remain 8.9% below the same period last year. That was a marked improvement from the second quarter, which was down 14.7% from the year-earlier period, and from the first, which was off 19% on the same basis.

"We have seen broad improvement in home prices for most of the past six months," said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P."However, the gains in the most recent month are more modest than during the seasonally strong summer months."

Several markets fell back into sequential declines in September after posting gains in August, among them Boston (-0.2%), Dallas (-0.7%), Denver (-0.5%), New York (-0.3%), Portland (-0.5%), Seattle (-0.4%) and Tampa (-0.6%). Cleveland (-1.6%) and Las Vegas (-0.9%), the other sequential losers, remained down for both months.

Among the other markets, nine of the metros posted positive sequential results, with four--Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and San Francisco--up more than 1%. San Francisco and Washington DC posted their sixth consecutive month of positive returns. Chicago, Minneapolis, San Diego have been positive for five.

Las Vegas remains the laggard, with prices down for 37 consecutive months to a peak-to-trough reading of -55.4%. Detroit has improved but is still at only 73% of its 2000 value. Conversely, Los Angeles, New York and Washington have maintained values of 70%-80% above their 2000 averages.

There is wide disparity among individual markets in year-over-year price comparisons. Dallas and Denver lead the nation with declines of only 1.2%, followed by Boston (-3.3%), Cleveland (-3.7%), Washington (-5%), San Diego (-5.7%), San Francisco (-7.8%), Charlotte (-8.1%), Los Angeles (-9.0%), New York (-9.0) and Atlanta (-9.3%). Still in double-digit annual declines are Chicago (-10.6%), Minneapolis (-11.2%), Portland (-11.8%), Seattle (-13.8%), Miami (-16.2%), Tampa (-16.7%), Detroit (-19.2%), Phoenix (-21.8%) and Las Vegas (-28.6%).