Baltimore home sales plunge 23%

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's housing market took its hardest hit in months in November, as home sales plummeted 23 percent, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors said yesterday.

Realtors mostly blamed rising mortgage interest rates, but said higher taxes, loss of defense-related jobs and last year's burst of mortgage refinancing have all hurt the area's sales, which have fallen each month since July.

In November, sales fell to 1,299, compared with 1,684 in the same month last year. The fewer sales came as little surprise to those in the industry, who had watched the number of sales contracts signed fall sharply in both September and October. Sales contracts signed in November were off 18 percent.

"It's tough out there," said Linda Bass Yaffe, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. "A lot of people are really crying the

blues."

The number of homes listed on the market rose 6 percent, which the board touted as a positive sign.

"We attribute the lag in home sales to rising interest rates but feel that the increase in the number of new listings bodes well for consumer confidence in the Baltimore area," said Christine Vasiliou, executive vice president of the Realtors board.

Patrick J. Kane, vice president of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc. in Towson, said rising interest rates have been only one factor affecting people's abilities to buy homes or qualify for higher mortgage payments. The housing market is also being hurt by an income tax increase for wealthy Americans this year and by last year's burst of refinancing, which left many homeowners with less equity in their homes, Mr. Kane said. And the loss of defense-related jobs in the state still hangs over the market, he said.

"When you throw all those things together, we're having a major adjustment in the real estate market," Mr. Kane said. But he said he was heartened to see a spurt of buying and selling at the end of November, which could signal an upturn.

Ms. Yaffe, for one, said staying ahead in the slow market isn't easy.

"I'm hustling," Ms. Yaffe said. "I have to show more houses than I ever did before."

Average interest rates on 30-year fixed loans have climbed from a low of 6.83 in October 1993 to a recent 9.34 percent in the Baltimore region. Because of increases, "the houses I took someone to see a month ago, they can't afford today," she said.

Despite that, she said, many first-time buyers are still finding buying a better investment than renting, even if they have to settle for less-expensive homes.

Sellers, meanwhile, have often had to lower their asking price to sell their homes, she said.

Sales in metropolitan Baltimore this year are up slightly compared with last year, at 16,271.

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