Real Estate

Baltimore-area housing market sees bidding wars return as buyers' choices shrink

David D. Igla lost out on three Ellicott City homes in the past few months before he finally beat the competition and had an offer accepted.

What kind of so-called buyer's market is this, he wondered?

Some houses zip off the market — occasionally above asking price — while others languish because the price isn't right, the home isn't updated or other aspects of the property don't appeal. The result: plenty of frustrated buyers and sellers.

Welcome to the post-bubble, post-bust housing market.

"The inventory is limited out there for good houses," said Igla, a foreign exchange sales trader.

Redfin, an online real estate brokerage, said nearly half the offers made by its Baltimore-area buyers in the first three months of the year had competition. That's up from one-fourth at the beginning of last year.

Which is not to say that half of all homes for sale had multiple offers. Many had none.

More homes for sale in the Baltimore area last week had been on the market for at least six months than for less than one, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, the listing service for the region — and 1,140 homes had been sitting for more than a year.

"If you price it to sell and it shows really well, it'll be gone," said Lynn Ikle, a Redfin real estate agent who works in the region. "If you think, 'I'm going to take advantage of this market,' and overprice it, it's going to sit."

Dwindling choices are fueling the rise in bidding wars for the best picks. The number of houses newly listed for sale between January and April — when homes generally hit the market for the spring selling season — is the lowest since 2003, according to data from RealEstate Business Intelligence, a unit of the listing service.

April was especially slim, with the fewest new listings for the month since the service started operating locally in the late 1990s. Nearly one-fifth of the homes that sold last month went under contract in 10 days or less, the highest share since 2006.

Ikle had clients who beat out two offers on a house in Towson's popular Stoneleigh neighborhood this spring because they offered to rent it back to the owners for two months — gratis. Noah Mumaw, a real estate agent with Prudential Homesale YWGC Realty in Baltimore, just sold three homes in Ruxton before they officially hit the market. His buyers are starting to use escalation clauses — offers with built-in increases in case of a bidding war — echoing the bubble years.

But it's a different story than during the market frenzy of the mid-2000s, despite the déjà vu of buyers fighting over homes and mortgage rates continuing to hit new record lows. Sellers aren't popping open the champagne.

"It's not like what it used to be when the housing market was crazy and people were escalating $100,000 over asking and still not getting it," said Mumaw, who's been a real estate agent for 10 years. "Even with these escalations that I've done in the spring, only one time did we go over asking and one of them we went to asking price. The other two, we got the house for less."

Here's why:

•Far fewer people buying. About 6,700 Baltimore-area homes changed hands in the first four months of this year. During the same stretch in 2005, buyers snapped up 12,200 homes. Real estate agents say would-be buyers are out looking but don't want to settle for an iffy deal.

Far more homes sitting unsold. Newly listed properties are relatively scarce, but there were 12,600 homes for sale in the region at the end of April. That's more than twice the number in April 2005, leaving a lot of would-be sellers with no takers.

Lower values. Prices are down 26 percent in the metro area since peaking in late 2006, according to real estate data firm CoreLogic. They seem to be stabilizing — prices were unchanged in March compared with a year earlier, CoreLogic said — but that's a far cry from the long stretch of double-digit gains in the bubble years.

Shadow and ghost inventory. Statewide, more than 90,000 homeowners are seriously behind on their mortgages but haven't yet faced the auction block because servicers hit the brakes after foreclosure-abuse inquiries. Now that the national mortgage settlement is done, analysts expect to see more bank-owned homes for sale soon. Then there's the "ghost" inventory of homes whose owners would like to sell but can't or won't at today's prices.

It's also less competitive for buyers here than in a handful of hot-again markets, such as San Francisco and Washington. But the Baltimore market is tighter than it's been for years.

Jed Kolko, chief economist at real estate search site Trulia, said asking prices in the metro area began rising in February and were up nearly 4 percent in April, compared with a year earlier.

"Those asking price increases now should translate to sale price increases later this year," he said.

This shift comes as a nasty shock to buyers.

Igla bought his Baltimore rowhouse in 2005, when sellers could name their price. Now his family of four needs more space, and he can't sell for what he paid. But he figured he'd rent the home out and — silver lining — get a steal as a buyer on a nice Ellicott City home with a yard.

Renting out worked fine. Buying proved more problematic.

He and his wife, Lori, lost out on the first house they wanted because they hadn't lined a renter up yet and asked for the sale to be contingent upon that. The seller went with another buyer willing to pay the same amount with no such contingency.

That was in November. The Iglas found renters in February and tried again. But now they had a deadline: Be out in May.

The second time, they were outbid. Then they were outbid again — on a house that had been listed for just a few hours before buyers pounced. They were getting so anxious that they made three offers on homes they weren't wild about, wrung their hands and pulled out.

Igla, who had expected a nice change of pace from the last time he bought, was flabbergasted by how familiar it felt.

"I can't believe this is happening all over again," he said.

He and his wife got another shot in late April. The home had just hit the market. They really liked it. So they offered $5,000 above the asking price, including an escalation clause in the contract that would have upped the payment by $10,000 if they were neck-and-neck with other buyers.

Immediately after the owners accepted, four agents called to try to put in offers for their clients — too late. The Iglas had finally come out on top.

He figures he's getting the house for about $75,000 less than if he'd bought at the peak of the market. But the timing didn't quite work out. His family moved into temporary housing to make way for the renters. He hopes to close at the end of May.

Though agents say they are seeing multiple offers in a variety of neighborhoods across the region, the Iglas might have had an easier time outside Howard County. Nearly 30 percent of homes sold there in April were on the market for 10 days or less before buyers signed contracts, the highest in the region. Well-regarded schools and a location between Baltimore and Washington are a draw.

Pat Hiban, a Howard-based agent with 25 years' experience, said buyers are "weirded out" by the return of the bidding war. They think it's temporary: Wait, and more homes will hit the market.

One difficulty he sees is that about 125,000 people in the region are underwater on their mortgages, and home prices would have to rise considerably to allow them to sell. He doesn't think that will happen soon.

But multiple offers now — just a few years after the financial meltdown — strike him as odd.

"It's almost scary," said Hiban, of Keller Williams Crossroads Realty. "It happened too fast. … It shouldn't be hard for people to buy houses now after what we went through so recently."