House sales continued 7-month slide in January


If you are trying to sell a home in Howard County, spring could be a mean season. But if you are a potential buyer, life is good.

That's because the housing market in Howard County has been in the basement for seven months now. Housing sales in January continued a 7-month slide, dropping 6.8 percent overall last month compared to January 1994.

With interest rates not expected to drop this spring, real estate experts expect sales during the next few months to remain flat in Howard.

Howard is the most expensive market for a home in the Baltimore region, with the average price of a county home sold in January $203,229.

Local real estate agents and brokers are hoping for a spring thaw.

"The market is definitely flat, but hopefully there will be an upturn in spring" said Gwen Howard, a sales agent with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn Realtors' Columbia office and treasurer of the Howard County Association of Realtors.

"Our agents are busy. People are out there looking, but they aren't making quick decisions," Ms. Howard said.

Buyers are cautious for several reasons, real estate experts say.

The Federal Reserve Board's seven interest rate increases during the past year has raised the cost of borrowing for homebuyers, as well as provoking concerns about the economy's overall stability. Also, with more than 1,500 homes already listed on the county market, buyers have a wide range of choices to consider for a home.

Sales of new and existing single family homes -- that is detached homes and townhouses -- were down 5 percent in January from January 1994, association figures show.

The detached home market has been hurt by a slowdown in the number of buyers wanting to "move up" to larger or newer homes, traditionally a significant segment of the Howard County market, say sales agents.

The relocation market remains strong in the county, but not as active as it has been in the past several years.

And the speculative home market -- homes built in the hope there will be buyers -- is dead.

Meanwhile, the strongest area of the single-family home market appears to be in the low and moderately priced home segment -- homes priced between $100,00 and $200,000, sales agents say.

The condominium market in the county has taken the roughest beating.

Sales of existing condominiums are off 22 percent from a year ago, the association said.

But the condominium market has some bright spots, such as the new Bristol Green development off Dobbin Road in Columbia. The project includes two- and three-bedroom condominiums selling for between $92,000 and $106,000.

It enjoyed robust sales activity for the first nine months of last year, said Craig Grief, a sales consultant with Builders First Choice, a marketing company handling sales for the developer. Sales fell off in December and January, he said, but picked up again during the past two weeks with five new contracts signed.

The 120-home project has about 30 units remaining to sell. "We expect to be sold out by April," Mr. Greif said.

"The thing with the condominium market in Howard County is location. We are one of only two new condominium projects in Columbia, while there is a lot of competition in the townhouse market -- eight new projects," he said.

As for the new detached home market, sales activity there also is flat, especially in the high-end market -- that is, homes priced above $300,00.

"We are hoping that once the weather warms up for good, the buyers will bust right through the walls," said Laura Compher, director of sales and marketing for Badgett Homes, which is building estate-style homes in Sharp Farms, a development off Triadelphia Road near Clarksville.

Homes ranging from 2,700 square feet to 4,000 square feet in the project are priced between $300,000 and $550,000.

None of the 27 home sites that Badgett plans to develop have been sold, she said.

"We've had a lot of people coming through, but they seem mostly to be poking around."

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