Baltimore-area home sales rose, prices fell in August

The number of homes sold in the Baltimore region in August rose 6 percent compared with a year earlier, while prices continued their long slide, numbers released Monday show.

The average home in the metro area — the city and its five suburban counties — sold for about $275,000 in August, down 5 percent from a year earlier, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems said. The Rockville company runs the multiple-listing service used to buy and sell homes in the region.

Buyers settled on just over 2,000 homes. That's more than the number of homes sold a year ago, when activity slumped as a federal tax credit for first-time home buyers was phasing out. Besides that, though, it is the lowest number of homes sold in the month of August since MRIS began tracking the region in the late 1990s.

Pending activity looks more hopeful. The number of contracts signed in August rose 26 percent from a year ago to nearly 2,400, the biggest figure since 2006, when the housing bust was in its early stages. Contracts generally turn into settled sales in 45 to 60 days.

Kenneth Wenhold, mid-Atlantic regional director for Metrostudy, a research firm that works as a consultant to the homebuilding industry, said it's good news for the health of the housing market that sales are rising at the same time the oversupply of homes listed for sale is shrinking. Baltimore-area sellers had just over 16,000 homes on the market in August, down 14 percent from a year earlier.

"It looks like we're finally headed on the right track," he said.

Homes sold through the multiple-listing service are largely "resales" rather than new properties. Homebuilders watch that market closely, though, because it affects their ability to sell. Even with the drop in homes listed for sale, the supply remains more than twice as large as it was six years ago, before the market's dramatic downturn.

"Until the resale market tightens up, there's not much that the new homebuilders can do other than limit their production," Wenhold said.

The number of home sales rose substantially in parts of the region while falling in others, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. Carroll County sales jumped 38 percent in August compared with a year ago, while Baltimore County posted a sales gain of 22 percent. At the other extreme, sales fell 11 percent in Harford County and 3 percent in Baltimore.

The average sale price in August rose 7 percent in Baltimore and nearly 2 percent in Howard County compared with a year ago. Prices fell elsewhere, ranging from 5 percent in Anne Arundel County to 14 percent in Baltimore County.

Gayle Briscoe, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Catonsville, said the last several years have definitely been slow. But she said she's working with more buyers and sellers these days. Prospective buyers tend to be better prepared than they once were, she added.

"Before, people were buying on emotion," Briscoe said. "Now, they're buying cerebral. They want to make a wise decision."

The trouble for sellers is that they still outnumber buyers willing to sign on the dotted line.

Bernardino Angel Gonzalez, an Owings Mills retiree, said he would like to sell his home and move to Texas. But when he was about to list it for $450,000 last year, the "almost comparable" home next door went on the market for $390,000. The neighboring home still hasn't sold. Another home for sale in the neighborhood is languishing, too.

"We're stuck," he said.

Gonzalez realizes that some buyers think sellers are setting their asking prices unreasonably high. He thinks some offers are way too low. He owns another property in Owings Mills, a seven-bedroom home on two acres that he rehabbed to sell as an investment, and said he wasn't willing to accept the $325,000 offer he got. He's asking $479,000.

It seems to him that buyers and sellers alike are waiting and seeing — buyers hoping for lower prices and sellers hoping for higher ones.

"The question, of course, is who can hold out the longest," he said.

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