Fortuitous times for homebuyers Excellent opportunities await first-time buyers

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Delisa and Michael Neville have grabbed hold of their piece of the American dream.

The couple recently settled on a three-bedroom rancher in northeast Baltimore and moved in Saturday with their toddler and infant daughters.

"We wanted something to call our own and we wanted to fix something up," said Delisa Neville, a registered nurse currently on maternity leave from the University of Maryland Medical Center, "but we were hesitant."

The couple decided to talk with Gayle Briscoe, an agent and vice president at Otis Warren Real Estate Services who was recommended to them.

"We were going to wait several months but she told us to jump in there now," Delisa Neville said.

As first-time homebuyers, the Nevilles, who began house-hunting more than three months ago, have climbed the first rung of the equity ladder at a time real estate industry members say is opportune. Industry members cite a number of reasons -- primarily a combination of lower mortgage rates, a large inventory of homes and a leveling off of home prices -- in explaining why they think the current market presents a good buying opportunity, especially for first-time buyers.

Robert Kleinpaste, president of Legg Mason Realty Group, which tracks the real estate market, agrees with the industry's assessment.

"Our numbers show that the market has bottomed out. I agree with them that it's a very good time to buy," he said.

Here are some of the reasons cited:

* There are a lot of houses for sale.

Currently more than 10,200 properties are listed by the Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service, 17 percent more than a year ago, according to Fletcher R. Hall, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, with 2,981 new listings coming on the market in January alone.

Settlements, meanwhile, fell 29 percent, to 983 in January compared to January 1990. Pending contracts for the same period were off 26 percent, to 1,092.

"It's definitely a buyer's market," Hall said.

* First-time buyers don't have to sell a house.

"The person doesn't have to sell another house to move up," pointed out Paul Cashpur, vice president of Rosedale Federal Savings & Loan.

* Houses are priced realistically, and sellers are making concessions.

"Sellers are being forced to make more concessions than they care to," said Jerry W. Miller, who operates J.D. Miller Realtors in Overlea. Aside from agreeing to price adjustments, many also are paying some of the points on a new mortgage.

Hall said that the city was a prime source for moderately priced homes, especially those between $60,000 and $80,000.

"There are some excellent buys in the city even with the high tax rate," he said. "People forget there are some really good &L; bargains."

Miller likewise pinpointed the city, especially the northeast quadrant, as a good hunting ground for prospective home owners.

* More people can afford houses.

The National Association of Realtors /31Housing Affordability Index is at its highest level in 13 1/2 years. It registered 116.5 in December, up 1.6 percentage points from November and the highest since it was at 118.6 in May 1977. The monthly gain was the fifth in a row.

The reading means a family earning the national median income of $35,581 had 116.5 percent of the income needed to qualify for conventional financing covering 80 percent of a house costing $91,900, the national median price.

The national median price of a starter home fell 5.1 percent in the last quarter, from $82,100 to $77,999, while the median income ++ of prime first-time buyers inched up $291, from $24,137 to $24,428, the NAR said.

* Mortgage money is available.

The supply of mortgage money is pretty much inexhaustible, said William Brewster, assistant director for Residential Finance for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, although standards for extending credit are being tightened.

"The key is how they are restricting credit," he said. "Marginal people are being affected."

* Mortgage rates are as low as 9 percent.

"Right now rates are as good as they've been in months, years," said Hall. "It means that the buyer's bottom line can be lower."

Or, said Briscoe, lower rates mean people can buy more house for the same monthly payment.

"For someone wanting to get on the equity train, this is one of the best times," agreed Ric Bauer, vice president of Mortgage Resources, the mortgage unit of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn.

Both Bauer and Brewster expect rates to continue to fall modestly through the rest of this year, although not under 8 percent as some economists are predicting.

"Our economists see between 8.5 and 9.5 [percent]," said Brewster.

But that savings could be offset as more buyers appear and drive home prices up, Bauer said.

* Prices are likely to firm.

Realtors are reporting that buyers are beginning to reappear.

"I think activity has picked up in the last few weeks," Hall said. "My understanding is that people are out looking."

A number of Realtors said that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August had a devastating effect on an already slowing market and that, ironically, the outbreak of war appears to have helped the market by resolving people's uncertainty.

John Evans, executive vice president at O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, confirmed that business has improved at his agency, the area's largest.

"In January things have picked up considerably," he said. "We've had a tremendous improvement in sales. It's almost normal."

In addition, some home shoppers are trying to beat the spring selling season, when prices normally rise.

Kleinpaste said his figures confirm an upswing in the past three weeks, in both new homes and resales, a trend he expects to continue.

And with developers unable to secure financing for new construction or land purchases, the supply of new homes will shrink, forcing more home buyers into the existing home market.

"I believe that in the long term and even in the short term the resale market will tighten up," he said.

*

For the Nevilles, it was falling interest rates, a pending change in the FHA government-insured mortgage program and the March expiration date on the lease of the $545-a-month townhouse they were renting that convinced them to begin house-hunting.

"As we started to look, interest rates fell even further," Delisa Neville said.

While she wanted to stick to a home in the $60,000-$70,000 price range, her husband Mike, a senior stock clerk at Martin Marietta, was sold on the brick-and-siding house they ended up buying for $83,000 from the start.

"It has so much more space," he said. "The other house was only one floor; it didn't have a basement."

As his wife mentally arranged furniture as she wandered through the rooms of the empty home, she conceded she was glad her husband had pushed her to buy this one.

The couple put up about $6,000 for the down payment and closing costs and secured a 30-year, FHA-insured mortgage at 9.5 percent. They are splitting the points with the seller, who originally asked $87,000. Their monthly payment will be $876, $331 more than their rent.

While Delisa Neville said the increase is "a big difference," she was confident the couple would be able to handle it.

"We don't have many bills," said Delisa Neville. "My schooling, his car -- they're paid off. I'd ask him about this bill, and he'd say, 'Oh, that's paid,' and then I'd ask him about another, and he'd say 'Oh, that's paid.' "

Briscoe, who said her average sale is around $75,000, also said the phase-out of most interest deductions is a factor motivating people to buy a home.

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