January's frigid weather put the big chill on home sales in Howard County, but local Realtors are predicting a flood of business come the spring thaw.
"We sort of got our teeth kicked out by the weather," said Kenneth M. Stiel, a real estate agent with American Properties in Columbia and president of the Howard County Association of Realtors.
The association reports that pending sales of new and previously-owned homes, the industry's main indicator of sales activity, plummeted 9 percent to 127 homes in January, compared with 140 pending sales during January 1993.
January normally is considered by industry experts a slow time for home sales throughout the Baltimore region. But the latest sales figures showed a larger drop than expected in the Howard market.
"That [9 percent] is a significant decrease," said Mr. Stiel. "It flies in the face of what we normally see this time of year, which is a 1 to 2 percent drop" in sales from before Thanksgiving.
The weather-driven decline came despite record low interest rates of around 7 percent.
"You had the holiday effect and the weather effect working against us," said Mr. Stiel.
He said a "significant" share of the home sales market in Howard County is driven by what is known as "voluntary move-ups," or people who purchase a larger, more expensive home because they want it and can afford it, rather than those purchasing a home due to a job move.
"Those buyers look for a home on their own schedule," he said.
The big drop in sales of new and previously-owned homes in the county was even more dramatic when compared with the the Baltimore region as a whole.
In the Baltimore metropolitan area, sales of new and previously-owned homes rose 5 percent in January from January 1993, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors reports.
In addition, settlements on home sales in Howard County also dropped 9 percent in January, compared with settlements for January 1993.
Settled sales reflect those properties buyers agree to purchase an average of 30 to 60 days prior to the settlement date. Pending sales figures are considered a better reflection of market activity during a specific period.
The average price of a single-family home that went to settlement last month was $184,689. The average sales price of a condominium settled in the county in January was $89,980. The average price of a home in the Baltimore region as a whole was $128,332 in January.
Mr. Stiel said that February's home sales probably would continue the sluggish pace if this winter's stormy weather continues. But he and other area real estate experts predict a bullish market once spring weather arrives.
"For one, you'll have a lot of pent-up demand from buyers who have been holding off because of the weather," said Mr. Stiel.
Buyers also will be driven to the market if mortgage interest rates move up this spring, as a result of actions threatened by the Federal Reserve Board to combat inflation.
"If that happens, we'll have the panic reaction. A lot of people will get moving to buy so they don't miss the low rates," said Mr. Stiel.
He said buyers looking for homes in Howard County should be met with a strong supply come spring, since many would-be sellers also have retreated from listing their homes for sale because of the rough winter weather. "When there's a sheet of ice lining your walkway, you really don't feel much like showing the house," he said.