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Where home sales are brewing

If you want to know how many homes have been sold in a particular area, you look at settlements. But if you want to know how many homes will be sold, you've got something better than tea-leaves -- you've got pending deals.

The number of buyers signing contracts last month (with or without contingencies) rose throughout the Baltimore area vs. a year earlier, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. That includes Baltimore, which was still seeing a drop in completed sales last month.

Here's how pending deals stacked up last month compared with July 2008:

Carroll County, up 31 percent

Anne Arundel County, up 26 percent

Howard County, up 22 percent

Harford County, up 16 percent

Baltimore City and Baltimore County, both up 8 percent

Contracts don't always turn into sales -- something could go wrong, like a loan falling through. But they're a clear intention to buy.

I was surprised to see that the counties posting the biggest increases in pending deals were also the most expensive in the region, on average. Much of the action is in first-time-buyer markets, and you'd think that first-time buyers would have an easier time finding affordable homes in the city and Baltimore and Harford counties. 

But maybe buyers are uncovering deals in pricier communities. Of the completed sales in Carroll last month, 36 percent were under $250,000. A year earlier, it was 26 percent.

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