Stephanie and Jake Martin didn't have to wait long to sell their rowhouse in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood — they had a contract in three days. But buying a new place proved a bit more difficult.
The Martins searched for months around Homeland in Baltimore and in Stoneleigh near Towson, but there wasn't much to see. One property that caught their eye ended up with something like a dozen offers.
The couple ultimately snapped up a house in Homeland the day before it was listed for sale — thanks to a tip from friends across the street.
"It was crucial," said Stephanie Martin, 29. "It's a really great house on a desirable street, and I think it would have gone really quickly. … It's just been frustrating because of the fact that there's no inventory on the market."
That's been the continuing complaint among home buyers in the region. The Baltimore area saw fewer homes newly listed for sale in January and February than average for the beginning of the year, when sellers are usually positioning themselves for the important spring season.
Real estate agents say the snow, ice and frigid weather — which reached into March — have delayed new listings.
"Hopefully that will change," said David McIlvaine Sr., an associate broker at Coldwell Banker in Ellicott City.
Buyers are crossing their fingers.
"There's definitely people that didn't get a house last year and … they're really hoping they're going to get one this spring," said Lynn Ikle, who leads a team of agents in the Baltimore area for Redfin, a real estate brokerage. "They never left the market, but the house hasn't appeared."
Cathy Werner, broker and owner of Re/Max American Dream, which has agents across the region, predicts a "condensed" season with listing and house shopping squeezed into April, May and June rather than spread over the first six months of the year.
"Sellers are waiting to put houses on the market and buyers have been waiting because they can't get out there," she said.
Even if they haven't gone out to visit houses, would-be purchasers are looking online. The 24 people who showed up at a Redfin buying class earlier this month were unanimous when asked whether they were having trouble finding suitable options.
"They were all like … 'Yes! When is it going to get better?' " Ikle recalled.
Reduced buying power doesn't help, she said. Mortgage rates are hovering around 4.3 percent, up from about 3.5 percent a year ago. That has moved some people into a lower price range — often with more competition.
Werner sees a "sense of urgency" among buyers when homes in good condition hit the market for $300,000 or less.
The neighborhood makes a difference, too — as always.
It would take about 6 1/2 months for all the Baltimore-area homes on the market in February to sell at the current pace, according to figures from Rockville-based RealEstate Business Intelligence. That's a pretty good balance between supply and demand, assuming the homes on the market match up with what buyers are looking for.
But that figure was less than four months in the city ZIP code that includes Canton, less than three months in most of Columbia and just two months in Towson's 21204 ZIP code — where buyers had a grand total of 20 homes to choose from.
Low supply was good for the Martins when they sold. But when they accepted an offer for their renovated Canton home in early March, the pressure was on to find something.
They'd been looking in their two preferred neighborhoods since October, at first casually, then more seriously, and feared it wouldn't be easy.
"It was nerve-racking, watching Redfin all the time to see if new things were coming on," said Stephanie Martin, an elementary school teacher. "I have some friends in the same position: They haven't found a house yet, theirs is under contract, and … there's just nothing to look at where they want to be."
But in the Martins' case, the fortuitously timed tip cut their wait short. Six days after they agreed to sell their rowhouse, they had a four-bedroom house under contract. They saw it on a Friday afternoon and made an offer that night.
What's also fortunate is that their Canton home is worth more than they owe on it, even though they bought at a tricky time — 2008, before most of the housing-market losses set in. They got a good deal on the property, Stephanie Martin said.
Many remain underwater on their loans, but their numbers are shrinking as values rise.
About 85,000 households in the Baltimore region owed more at the end of last year than the home's value, according to real estate data firm CoreLogic. That's down from about 120,000 a year earlier.
The number of homeowners with equity but not enough to cover selling costs also decreased in the region last year, CoreLogic said — from 32,000 to 26,000.
Even so, that's a lot of homes essentially locked out of the market, unavailable to buyers. Werner said there aren't as many starter homes for sale as there would be had the bubble and bust of the last decade never happened, because first-time buyers who got in at a bad time can't sell now without taking a loss.
Some are doing so anyway, bringing money to the settlement table to cover the difference, Werner said. Others are taking advantage of a strong rental market and finding tenants for their original homes.
"People are tired of waiting to move on with their life and make those changes," she said. "They're doing what they need to do so that they can move on, and we've seen more of that."
William C. Wheaton, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says it will take years for every underwater borrower in the area to get back to square one. But not decades.
Home prices in the Baltimore region dropped 30 percent between early 2007 and 2012, a wallop but still better than the worst-hit areas, according to his figures. Wheaton, who forecast values across the country for 2022, expects that Baltimore-area prices will be 24 percent above the housing-bubble peak at that point.
If he's right, even the most unlucky buyers — those who signed a contract just as bubble prices were the highest — should be able to get out before then.
Still, inflation would account for a significant part of that increase, Wheaton said. The real gains homeowners see, accounting for the rising cost of goods and services, will likely fall a bit short of the housing-bubble peak even by 2022, he said.
Baltimore's fairly average on that count, Wheaton said. Some regions are closer to full recovery, and some are much farther removed.
"Some places — like Phoenix, [Ariz.,] — I don't think will get back," he said. "They fell so much."
By the numbers
The Baltimore metro area housing market as of February 2014.
•Average sales price: $259,500
•Price increase over the year: 4.5 percent
•Homes sold: 1,540
•New listings: 3,210
•Historical average (since 1998) number of new listings in February: 3,510
Source: RealEstate Business Intelligence. Numbers are rounded.