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Housing brightens Washington Co. economy

April 25, 2009|By ARNOLD PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Housing sales were a bit of a bright spot last month in a mostly grim-looking economy in Washington County.

In all, 82 properties were sold in March compared to 79 a year ago, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

The increase, the county's first since October, boosted the local real estate market to $15.3 million, though that still was a bit smaller than a year ago as prices hung back.

Meanwhile, new information from the Maryland Comptroller of the Treasury's office shows consumers and contractors still are holding onto their dollars tightly.

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The latest data -- gathered from sales tax receipts reported in March -- shows in all, about $116 million was spent in the county in February. By comparison, about $123.8 million was spent here in February 2008.

The 6.2 percent drop in spending locally in February was a bit steeper than the 4.8 percent decline statewide, according to that information.

Such state figures continue to be worrisome, Comptroller Peter Franchot told Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state leaders in a report this month.

"Consumer confidence hit an all time low in February, Maryland unemployment rose to 6.7 percent (from only 4.6 percent in September), and median home values in Maryland fell by double digits in both January and February -- all of these factors are likely contributing to the ongoing drops in sales tax revenue," Franchot wrote.

Median falls, sales rise

The county's unemployment rate was 10.5 percent in March, up from 10 percent in February. That was the county's worst jobless rate in at least 15 years.

Median prices of properties sold here have continued to fall this year compared to a year ago.

Price trends are watched both by the median and by the average, but the median price generally is considered to give a more accurate picture of what's happening.

"In general, median price is preferable to using average sales price, which can be skewed upwards by a few costly homes," according to kidsdata.org, a California Web site designed to teach children about the world around them. "Median price," on the other hand, provides a measure of the midpoint of house sales, according to the Web site.

In Washington County, the median price of houses sold in January slipped nearly 3.5 percent from the median price of those sold a year ago, according to data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS) data .

The price plummeted 19.0 percent in February compared to the year-ago figure. And, last month, it fell to $172,450 -- an 11.1 percent decrease from March 2008.

But the number of sales did rise a bit, to 82 deals.

Another sign of health is 22 of those properties each brought $250,000 or more. A year ago, there were 25 such higher-priced sales.

Permits down, projects up

But on the downside, not much new housing was started in March in Hagerstown or other areas of the county.

No new homes were started in the city last month, whereas a year ago, the city issued permits for a total of 44 new homes.

What new work there was for construction crews mostly was commercial, according to data from the city and county building permit agencies.

The figures indicate a strong flurry of activity in the city, where permits were issued for 16 new projects, valued at a total of $1.36 million. That is far more than the year-ago total.

City officials, who process such permits, weren't available for comment when a reporter called Thursday. On average, the 16 projects would seem to be relatively small, considering that a three-story office building under construction on Dual Highway is costing more than $9 million.

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