The word that best describes house hunters these days might well be hesitant, to hear the talk among real estate agents and new-home salespeople.
Buyers look and look some more. They wait -- sometimes months longer than they'd expected -- for their homes to sell. They try to guess what interest rates might do next.
"There's not a lot of urgency," said Esther E. Seward, sales consultant for Silverbrook Wood, garden condominiums in Owings Mills New Town, priced from the mid-$80,000s to $113,000.
"The prices are good. The value is good. The condo buyers are out there. But they're comparing us to everyone else. They're just taking longer to make a decision."
Denis Hauenstein and Cindy Appler can attest to that. The couple began house-hunting after deciding on a condo lifestyle a year ago.
"We're both in our mid-40s, and we don't want to cut grass and paint the outside of the house," said Ms. Appler, inspecting a three-bedroom condominium at Silverbrook.
But deciding on a new home led the couple on a months-long tour of homes from South Baltimore and north to beyond the city line, as they considered condo fees and commuting, taxes and such features as balconies and fireplaces.
"We wanted to see as much as we could," said Mr. Hauenstein, who said they've finally decided on a condominium in Mount Washington, also built by Bozzutto Homes. "It's been a fact-finding mission."
Last year, hesitancy and economic uncertainty among buyers -- coupled with sharp increases in interest rates -- drove sales of new condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes to the lowest level since 1990. Rates on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages climbed steadily after bottoming out at 6.83 percent in October 1993, exceeding 9 percent by the end of last year.
In its quarterly survey of Baltimore-area homebuilders, Legg Mason Realty Group Inc. reported that sales fell 14 percent last year, to 8,998 from 10,412 in 1993. Sales had been climbing steadily each year since 1990 -- when 8,232 homes sold -- but in 1994 interest rate increases cut affordability for large percentages of potential homebuyers, the realty group said.
Sales of all types of new homes declined. Single-family sales fell to 3,968 from 5,027; townhouse sales dropped to 3,450 from 3,686; condo sales fell to 1,580 from 1,699.
But in 1994, townhouses began making up a bigger share of the market, accounting for 38 percent of sales, up from 35 percent in 1993.
Meanwhile, single-family homes, which had gained in market share each year since 1990, slipped from 48 percent to 44 percent of sales.
New-home sales in the region remained strongest in the Odenton/Crofton area, which has 71 actively selling subdivisions 20 units or more, according to Legg Mason. The area captured nearly 17 percent of the region's annual sales.
Even there, sales fell 18 percent. The median price fell slightly to $145,785 in the fourth quarter.
During that period, townhouse communities across the price spectrum fared best. Topping sales in the Odenton/Crofton area were the Vineyards at Piney Orchard by the Gables Cos. and Pulte Home Corp. at Seven Oaks.
Three new projects opened: US Home Corp.'s single-family homes at the Woodlands, priced from $179,950; Country Club Construction's single-family homes at Severn Meadows, from $146,900; and Washington Homes' new section of 102 single-family homes at Walden, starting at $194,990.
The northwest Baltimore County region came in second to Odenton/Crofton, capturing nearly 11 percent of the region's annual sales. Legg Mason reported strong sales in Randallstown, Owings Mills and Pikesville. Still, sales in these areas fell sharply, from a high of 1,217 in 1991 to a low of 981 last year.
Condos and townhouses fared best there, especially in the $100,000 to $124,999 range. The best-selling condo community in that market -- and in the region -- was Rocky Gorge Communities' Grey Rock, which targets empty-nesters. Condos start at $133,900.
New communities included Ashley Custom Homes' upscale, single-family homes at the Fields of Stevenson, starting at $327,900; Patriot Homes' single-family homes at Owings Meadows, priced from $179,900 to $221,900; and Orion Homes' townhouses priced from $108,900 at the Villages of Winterset near Owings Mills New Town. Pulte Home Corp. also plans to sell townhouses at that site.
Legg Mason notes that competition is intensifying, as 12 townhouse communities will be selling in or near Owings Mills New Town.