The latest data show that far fewer buyers snagged a home for under $10,000, a surprisingly common transaction in the city for a short while. During the first half of last year, 10 percent of Baltimore home sales went for less than that — more than 270 in all. This year? 120.
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Lynn Ikle, a real estate agent who leads Redfin's Baltimore market team, said plenty of local residents are ready to buy but can't find what they want — or can't get it before someone else does.
"It's just slim pickings," she said. Clients who had hoped to buy in the spring, when homes for sale are usually more numerous, "are looking at me with these puppy dog eyes: 'Is there going to be anything else?' "
E Yang and husband Lei Chen are in that boat. The Cockeysville couple is looking for something pretty specific: a single-family house in the Timonium or Pinewood elementary school districts in Baltimore County for $300,000 or less. Yang said one or two suitable homes hit the market each month.
Since they started looking at the end of last year, they've made offers on two homes but were topped by other buyers each time. Yang thinks she'll have to move fast when good deals appear: She made an appointment to see a home the day after it hit the market this month. In the few hours between her request and the appointment, the seller accepted another buyer's contract.
"It's very frustrating," said Yang, 33, who is finishing her dissertation for a doctorate in economics. "When you find something, you're excited and really hopeful for it. And then you find you don't even have time to take a look."
She's glad her infant daughter is years away from school. Otherwise, the pressure really would be on. "We still have time," she said.
Sherry Clair had the opposite experience when she tried to sell her renovated three-bedroom house in Cockeysville two years ago. No luck. Not a single offer. "I couldn't drop my price fast enough to keep up with the market drop — and of course, you don't want to take a loss on it."
The computer-assisted design production manager rented the home out instead. But being a landlord has proved to be a headache, and she's again trying to sell.
"I'm hoping that the market has changed enough in two years that something may happen now," Clair said.
Fiserv's Stiff expects more homes will hit the market in batches over time, as rising prices lift owners into positive-equity territory and convince others that it's finally time to move. So, while he's predicting a 7 percent increase in home prices between early 2013 and early 2014, he thinks buyers will have more to choose from after that, capping price gains.
"We're likely to see some bounces and then a lot of sideways," he said.
One big unknown for the Baltimore region — like the Washington region — is the extent and effect of federal budget cuts. If Congress doesn't vote to stop the large "sequestration" reductions starting in January, economists expect they will hit government-dependent Maryland in an outsized way.
Another constraint on price increases is the much more cautious way appraisals have been done since the crash. Appraiser Sharon Cremen said people in the business are erring on the conservative side when estimating values, even if buyers are willing to pay more than others did for similar properties in recent months. And if a bank doesn't think a property is worth what the buyer offered, it usually won't OK the mortgage without a larger down payment.
These days, Cremen says, it generally takes purchases paid for in cash or significant home improvements to raise prices.
"That's how they start creeping up, but it takes a long time," said Cremen, of Cremen Appraisal & Consulting in Forest Hill.
Dominic Cantalupo with Champion Realty in Pasadena has had deals, including one two months ago, with prices that passed the appraisal test — and then the bank sent another appraiser.
But he said the market is noticeably better for sellers than it had been in the last several years. If a home is priced right and looks good, "you're probably going to get a buyer and pretty quickly."
"It seems that the bloodletting has stopped," he said.