Home sales in the Baltimore region dipped slightly last month amid concern about a relatively weak housing market nationwide.
The number of sales in Baltimore city and the five surrounding counties fell by 23, or 1 percent compared with April 2013, according to monthly data published Monday by RealEstate Business Intelligence, a subsidiary of the MRIS multiple listing service. New contracts also dropped 1.1 percent, the third month in a row to show year-over-year declines, the report found.
Meanwhile, the region's median home price was $240,000, up less than 1 percent from a year ago. Price gains appeared only in Baltimore and Howard counties, while Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties posted declines.
Baltimore's sluggish activity comes after a year that saw the number of sales rise 13.8 percent, while prices appreciated 4.3 percent.
It is still too early to identify a downturn in the Baltimore region, which by some metrics fared better than other parts of the country, such as Washington, D.C., where sales slumped 8.3 percent, said RBI senior product manager Corey Hart.
"Last year was a year with big year-over-year gains in sales each month, and now we're flat," he said. "If we're tracking well with last year in terms of sales increases, I think that's a positive."
In testimony last week, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen called attention to the nation's "disappointing" housing market activity so far this year, warning that the current slowdown in the market "could prove more protracted than currently expected."
Weather may explain some of the weakness in the Baltimore region's housing market, but underlying conditions in the state's labor market are also a cause for pause, said R. Andrew Bauer, a Baltimore-based senior regional economist with the Federal Reserve in Richmond, Va.
While unemployment in Baltimore-Towson dropped to 6 percent in March, down 1 percent from last year, the rate of job creation in Maryland has slowed "considerably," Bauer said.
"There's a number of cross currents when trying to figure out what the underlying demand in housing is right now," Bauer said. "When you net it all out for our region, I think things are going to be a little slower moving forward."
In April, the median sales price was $307,700 in Anne Arundel County, down 1.3 percent compared to last year; $119,700 in Baltimore City, down 6.1 percent; $212,250 in Baltimore County, up 6.1 percent; $263,000 in Carroll County, down 7.9 percent; $222,375 in Harford County, down 3.5 percent; and $381,975 in Howard County, up 9.1 percent.
"I find the market to be very steady, not necessarily down or up," said Daniel Hoff, president-elect of the Carroll County Association of Realtors and an agent with the Samuel C. Hoff Agency in Westminster. "It's certainly not gangbusters, but I don't get the sense that everything is going poorly either."
Baltimore's relatively less expensive housing stock may be shielding it from the more severe declines occurring elsewhere, causing buyers to be less affected by tighter credit requirements and increasing interest rates, said RBI's Hart.
Sellers placed 5,596 new listings on the market last month, the most added in any month since April 2010, according to the RBI report. The total number of active listings was 11,965, up 12.3 percent compared to March and 14.6 percent compared to last year.
Even so, inventory remains about 41 percent below the July 2008 peak.
"We're happy to see that people are now finally putting their house on the market, because it increases the availability for buyers," said Marianne Ferguson, branch vice president for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bel Air.
Homes sold most quickly in Howard County, where they sat on the market for 25 days, versus 77 in Harford County. The median days on the market for the region was 45, nine more than April 2013.
"The market is virtually normal, except the inventory is a little bit on the low side," said Tom Rybczynski, a Fells Point-based broker for Coldwell Banker. "It's very much [going] in the right direction."
Daraius Irani, executive director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said as more homes are listed, prices might decline or properties might take longer to sell. He, too, sounded a note of caution about the weakness of the labor market's recovery.
"This year might be a fairly flat year for real estate," he said. "Many people still don't feel quite fully recovered."