Sales of new and existing homes in Howard County surged 15 percent during the first six months of the year compared with the same period last year, an increase Realtors and builders say is evidence of a robust local real estate market.
"This is a significant increase when you consider that the market in this region has been flat or slow for several years," said Ken Steil, president of the Howard County Association of Realtors and an agent with American Properties.
Figures for sales of new and previously-owned homes in the entire Baltimore metropolitan area for the first six months of the year are not available yet, said the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, which compiles a monthly report.
But Howard County's real estate market stands in stark contrast to a downturn nationwide. Home sales in the United States dropped 14 percent overall during the first six months of the year -- a two-year low, the Commerce Department reported this week.
The local market's strength is being driven by several factors, said Mr. Steil, namely buyer confidence, interest rates and buyers who have been waiting in the wings entering the market.
"The main thing driving the market now is an overall confidence in the economy I hear from buyers. I wasn't hearing that this time last year," said Mr. Steil.
"Also, there's been a release in the pent up demand. A lot of people have been waiting while interest rates were dropping to see if they'd bottom out anymore. Instead, we've been seeing interest rates move up, and so people are saying, I better get on the bandwagon before it's too late."
Average mortgage interest rates taken on homes in the county have risen about a half-point since January. The average mortgage interest rate on a home sold in the county in June was 6.92 percent. In January, the average rate was 6.43 percent, the county Realtors association's figures show. The figures include adjustable and fixed rate mortgages.
During the first six months of the year, there were 1,342 settled home sales recorded in the county, compared with 1,165 sales recorded during the same period in 1993.
The average sales price in the county was $191,700 during the first six months of the year.
June was a particularly strong month for real estate in Howard County, with sales of existing single family homes rising 17 percent when compared with June 1993, according to figures compiled by the association. During June, there were 320 settled sales recorded.
The average sales price in June for a single family home in the county was $192,518, the association said.
Condominium sales, boosted by several new projects on the market in Howard County, have also been strong recently. Sales of condominiums in June were 40 percent higher than June, 1993. The average sales price of a condominium in June was $81,700.
Particularly hot sales areas of the county this year have been in the 21042 and 21044 zip codes, Ellicott City west and Columbia west, respectively, association figures show. In the 21044 zip code, strong sales figures are largely being driven by new home construction in the Pointers Run neighborhood, the last village to be developed in Columbia.
The average sales price of the 60 homes sold in the west Columbia zip code in June was $235,785 -- though many homes in Pointers Run have list prices significantly higher than that, ranging from $250,000 to $400,000.
Goodier Builders, Inc., a home builder developing lots in Pointers Run, is a beneficiary of the strong market.
Jim Jeppi, sales manager for the Ellicott City-based home builder, says sales have been strong this year. The company has sold 28 of the 31 homes it is developing in Pointers Run. Goodier's home price range: $255,000 and $340,000.
The neighborhood's distinction as Columbia's newest and last village, as well as its location near to good schools, has helped fuel sales, Mr. Jeppi said.
But the market also appears strong elsewhere in the county, too, he noted. Goodier has already sold half of the 20 homes it is building in the Marshall Lee development in Elkridge, where homes prices range between $260,000 and $300,000.
Said Mr. Steil: "I guess the main thing you can say about the market right now is interest rates are creeping up, but they're still incredibly low, the inventory is getting lower and prices have stabilized. It's a pretty smart time to buy."