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Home sales rise in Washington Co.

May 15, 2010|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU
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WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Washington County's home-buying market surged in April, powered by the race to qualify for federal tax credits before they disappeared at month's end.

The market jumped 10 percent to $16.9 million in deals from the 101 properties that were sold, compared to $15.3 million from the 80 properties sold in April 2009, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. (MRIS).

Experts are saying that what happens in real estate over the next few months will tell a lot about whether the nation's recession is beginning to lose its crushing hold on the economy.

Here, the early signs are encouraging, said a local Realtor who monitors the MRIS data closely.

From May 1 to 12, 69 more sales contracts had been signed --boosting to 301 the total that are waiting to go to settlement, Realtor Shirley Bayer said.

The number of contracts waiting grew during April to 232, a 46 percent gain over the 158 pending in March, Bayer said.

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"So more people are getting into the market," she said. "There's still a lot of action in foreclosure sales and short sales. There's still a lot of listings coming on the market. We're going to keep going."

Ups and downs

One sign that's not so good for area homeowners was brought into the spotlight by a report issued last week by the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

The news: Home prices still were falling in the Hagerstown-Martinsburg, W.Va., region in January, February and March, compared to the first three months of 2009.

In fact, median prices in this region dropped 13 percent -- the nation's sixth largest price decrease, the NAR report shows.

At the same time, however, prices began rising again in most of the country.

In all, 91 of the nation's 152 metropolitan statistical areas posted higher median prices for existing single-family homes, NAR said.

By comparison, just 67 posted price gains during the October, November and December quarter in 2009, NAR said. And only 30 showed price increases in 2009's July, August and September quarter, it said.

The Hagerstown-Martinsburg, W.Va., metropolitan statistical area was among the 58 such areas where the median price still was falling in January, February and March of this year.

In this area, the median price dropped to $145,400 compared to the $167,100 median price during January, February and March 2009, according to NAR.

Two cities in Florida, where the housing market has been reeling, were hit the hardest. Median prices fell 15 percent to $131,600 in Orlando and dropped 14.5 percent to $92,900 in Ocala, NAR said.

As in Florida, the high unemployment rate in Washington County -- 11.1 percent in March -- is contributing to a high number of foreclosures and short sales. Such sales are dominating the local real estate market, pulling prices down.

Good news/bad news

As to prices, the latest MRIS report on Washington County offers a ray of hope for sellers, but it is thin.

The glimmer of good news is that the median price of homes sold here rose to $147,500 in April compared to the $139,000 median in March.

But economists generally compare such statistics to what prices were in the same months a year ago because variables such as the weather usually have a similar impact.

So the bad news is that April's $147,500 median is 13 percent lower than the $170,000 median in April 2009. And March's $139,000 median was 19 percent lower than in March 2009.

Nonetheless, Bayer isn't discouraged.

"I had an offer come in yesterday on a $500,000 listing that's been out 10 months. And I got another one (on the same house) that came in today," she said.

"So that just tells me, it sometimes doesn't matter about all the advertising and promotions that you do. You just have to wait until market conditions are right for us to buy.

"And if we can get good interest rates and housing prices are down, as both are now, that's really the driving factor. The tax credits are really icing on the cake."

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