A BUYER'S MARKET But where are all the buyers?


Joseph Weikel, a 38-year-old attorney, smiles broadly when he talks about the deal he expects to get on the condo that he wants to buy in Howard County.

"My sense is that people are anxious to sell and it's a buyer's market," says Mr. Weikel, who visited the Ellicott City community known as The Villages of Montgomery Run.

A buyer's market, to be sure, but not a strong one. Some potential buyers are sitting on the sidelines entirely -- fearful for their job or the economy, or satisfied with their current home now that they've refinanced. Others, like Mr. Weikel, have ventured out to open houses or realty offices but are taking their time shopping around.

TC The end result is that April sales in the greater Baltimore area fell 22 percent to 1,285 -- despite the lowest mortgage rates in 20 years and some predictions that rates had hit bottom. For the first four months of the year, sales were down 6.5 percent to 4,685. At that rate, sales for all of 1993 would approach the figure for 1991 -- the height of the area's residential real estate bust.

The figures, from the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, include sales for the city and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, but not Anne Arundel County.

Despite the cold, hard statistics, real estate professionals still describe the spring market as warm, though not blazing. They say more people are looking at homes, many believing the low mortgage rates are too good to pass up.

In addition, they contend that the poor statistics may be due, in part, to the heavy snow in March, when April's buyers would have been shopping, as well as April's rains. In fact, the number of people who put a contract on a home -- but did not settle on it and, therefore, did not officially buy it yet -- jumped 4 percent in April after sharp declines in each of the first three months of the year. These "pending" sales often presage actual sales two or three months down the road.

But even those venturing into the market now are slow to buy.

"People are taking time to look," said Nancy Hubble, president-elect of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a partner in W.H.C. Wilson Realtors in Roland Park. "There are a lot of good buys, and the buyers want to be sure they have the right house."

She said buyers are taking three or four months to shop for a house, instead of three or four weeks, and there are a variety of

reasons why.

Holding out for great deal

Mr. Weikel, for instance, figures that taking into account the tax breaks of owning, he could move to a nice 2-bedroom condo with a den for only a few dollars more per month than he currently pays to rent a garden apartment in Ruxton. The legally separated father of a 5-year-old, Mr. Weikel is moving in order to be closer to his young son, who lives with his mother in Columbia.

Yet he is holding out for a sweet deal.

When Mr. Weikel goes out home shopping with Donna Gfeller, an agent with RE/MAX Advantage in Columbia, he takes along a note pad on which he has listed items he'd like thrown in with his purchase. Not only does he expect a low price and seller assistance with closing costs, but he'd like draperies, appliances and built-in bookshelves to be tossed in as well.

Unable to unload a home

One condo that Mr. Weikel looked at was Ann Coates' 3-year-old unit in The Villages of Montgomery Run. Ms. Coates, a 36-year-old computer programmer for the Social Security Administration, is anxious to sell her condo-apartment in order to buy a townhouse with a yard.

Still, she's waiting until the condo she bought 4 1/2 years ago moves before beginning the search for her next home.

This spring, many sellers, such as Ms. Coates, seem to have drawn a line as to how low they'll go on property they believe to already be realistically priced.

"I'm going to sell the house, but I'm not going to give it away," she vows.

At the same time, many buyers like Mr. Weikel are becoming more conservative and spending less on a new home. Though his income would allow him to buy a traditional, single-family home with a garage and yard, he's deliberately buying below his means.

"I'm trying to jealously guard my cash," says the corporate attorney, adding that he is worried about the economy because "Clinton hasn't proved to me that he's for real."

A lot of homes to look at

Another reason buyers are taking longer is that there are simply more homes on the market to check out -- because they're not selling.

"You have more houses than people looking for them," observes Jean Davis, a retired pharmaceutical company sales executive from Mount Washington who spent last Sunday touring new-home models at Seminary Overlook in Lutherville.

Ms. Davis, who is house shopping for her son and daughter-in-law who currently live in Columbia, believes "it's a very good time for young people to buy."

She and a friend, Roxy Brown, of Morgan Park, who was also searching Seminary Overlook for the right property for her offspring, were impressed with a tour of a model of "The Aynsley," a 3,454-square-foot house being offered for $378,000 by Talles, a Pikesville homebuilder.

"Traffic is picking up a little bit," observes Donna Blair, a hostess for Talles who works in the Aynsley model, which features an atrium foyer, as well as an elaborate first-floor master bedroom suite, complete with whirlpool tub.

Low mortgage rates mean people are out shopping this spring, but many prospective buyers -- who are reluctant to commit -- are making repeat visits to a model that interests them. "There's still a bit of holding off to see what's coming," she says.

The lowball offer

At Champion Realty in Severna Park, President Chris Coile says buyers "are looking at an unusual number of homes before they make a decision."

Buyers, he says, "have been schooled in the belief that all sellers are desperate and have a tendency to make offers that are

patently unacceptable to the seller."

The reluctance of buyers to commit to a home and a price, coupled with sellers' refusal to lower prices further, are leading to protracted negotiations until the two sides can get together, Mr. Coile says.

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