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Real estate sales decline in Carroll likely a sign of low inventory, 'not a cause for alarm'

Home sales in Carroll County were down 22 percent — highest in the state — in February compared to the same time last year.

The slide seems to be the continuation of a trend across Maryland. It’s the sixth straight down month for the state and most counties and Baltimore City experienced a decrease in real estate closings from 2017 to 2018. The decreases range from 0.3 percent in Wicomico County to 11.1 percent in Caroline County. Carroll falls in the middle with a decrease of 4.2 percent over that time.

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As for Carroll, former president of the Carroll County Realtors Association, Ivy Gifford, said there are many variables to consider, and any one piece of the puzzle isn’t an indicator of an unhealthy market.

“It’s really not a cause for alarm,” she told the Times. “It’s not just countywide, but even statewide. There’s a couple of things at play.”

Low inventory, high prices

One variable is a lower inventory of homes available, she said.

Although the county built up and drew in new residents throughout the late-1990s and early-2000s — issuing almost 1,700 residential permits in 2002 — it has declined since then with only 300 permits issued in 2018, according to data from the Carroll County Bureau of Permits.

“We maybe aren't building as much as we would like to be, or as much as our surrounding counties,” Gifford said. “We just don't have the ground, and we don't have the water resources right now.”

And because there are fewer homes on the market, the average price has increased.

The average Carroll County home has gone up from $315,000 in February 2018 to $335,000 last month — an increase of 6.5 percent, according to Maryland Realtors data.

Even though the number of units sold has been decreasing, the demand hasn’t gone away, it’s just taking longer to get people into Carroll homes.

“We’re still bringing people in from surrounding counties,” Gifford said said, “especially Baltimore County, Baltimore City. We are moving people in to be closer to our school systems and the amenities here, for raising families in Carroll County — and our tax structures are a little bit better than some of our surrounding counties.”

The season

The season is another contributor to the low inventory this early in the year.

“People hold onto their houses until March and April to put them on for the spring market,” said Gifford. “You want to put your house on the market when it looks the best, which is certainly not January and February.

“Everything is dead,” she said. “There’s no mulch … and it’s raining and snowing. Nothing looks great.”

There were 114 units sold in February of 2018 and 89 units sold this February. The 22 percent is equivalent to 25 homes, which can easily be made up later in the year, Gifford explained.

Even though less homes are being built, the number of homes being sold in Carroll isn’t much lower than what it was in the early 2000s — with 2,312 sold in 2018 — after dropping during the recession.

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Maryland Realtors President Merry Tobin said the spring market can have a bigger impact on smaller counties.

“The spring market has always been the strong time to list and sell your home,” she told the Times Monday. “In March and April, you could see that number turn around.”

Aging in place

The county must also accommodate the changing needs of its home buyers, said Gifford.

The state of Maryland had 1.2 million seniors 60-plus years of age in 2015, and is expected to have 1.7 million by 2030, Commission of Aging and Disabilities Chair Hermine Saunders said at an aging in place presentation at McDaniel College last year.

And that increase is being reflected in the requests for custom-built homes, according to Robin Ford, president and master carpenter of Robin Ford Building & Remodeling, Inc. in Carroll County.

People want to be able to age in place, as well as take care of family members, he said.

Ford has been building custom homes in the county for 34 years, and said that is one of the biggest shifts he has seen in the market.

“Most of the folks that end up coming to us look extensively at the ranchers from ’60s and ’70s,” he told the Times Monday. “Small windows, not much in the way of aging in place.

“But we have a lot under construction now,” said Ford. “One is a rancher— the gentleman who is having a house built actually has a brother who is special needs, so he is making it to accommodate him.”

At least two of the approximately eight homes Ford builds each year have in-law additions, and at least one home is made for someone aging in place — something that was a rarity back when he started.

Tobin said she agrees that has become a big factor in real estate, and that the low inventory reflects the number of people choosing to stay at home.

“A lot of people are aging in place,” she told the Times, “which makes the market tighter. Many houses aren’t coming back on the market like they used to.

“That increases the price, too. The less available homes, the higher the prices are.”

Although she is hopeful for spring, the Maryland Realtors president said there is no way to be certain of what the rest of the year will bring.

“I don't think any of us know what the year is going to be like, but interest rates are still really low and it’s a great time to sell and to buy,” she said.

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