Regional home sales leveled off in Nov. But new contracts continued to rise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Home sales in the Baltimore region leveled off in November, compared with the same period a year ago, but the number of buyers signing contracts on homes continued to rise substantially, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors said yesterday.

For the month, typically a slow one just before the holiday season, 1,301 new and previously owned homes were sold in the region. That barely surpassed the 1,296 sold in November 1994, the board said. But the number of contracts signed and awaiting settlement jumped to 1,503 -- 37 percent more than the previous November.

"It's somewhat amazing to me," said Adam D. Cockey Jr., president of the board of Realtors. "I thought the volume of business wasn't as strong as it apparently is. It's very good to see that at this time of year.

"Buyers are seeing that there is stabilization of values of homes and that they are stabilized at good prices," said Mr. Cockey, managing director of W. H. C. Wilson & Co. "They're seizing the opportunity to buy a product at what is perceived to be a good value."

In November, the sales price of a home sold in the region averaged $130,945, up 4 percent from the same period a year ago. Average prices fell in just two jurisdictions, Howard County, to $191,190, and Baltimore City, to $67,653.

Settled sales increased in Howard, Harford and Carroll counties -- by as much as 22 percent in Howard. But sales dipped slightly Baltimore County and dropped by 15 percent in the city, the board said.

Contract signings have been especially strong in the region for much of the second half of this year, but the number dipped slightly in September. That could explain why November's settled sales remained flat: settlements typically reflect the number of contracts signed about two months earlier, experts said.

Mortgage rates, at 21-month lows, have sparked interest in home buying and refinancing, agents and lenders said. Rates on 30-year, fixed mortgages averaged 7.43 percent in the Baltimore area yesterday, according to HSH Associates, a New Jersey firm that tracks mortgage rates.

"First-time home buyers are realizing that rates are very good, and they're realizing that [a home] is the only tax break that they have," said David McIlvaine, an agent with Re/Max Advantage Realty in Columbia.

He said first-time buyers accounted for more than half his business in November. "They'refinding they can qualify for more home than they thought they could."

Although the month brought out fewer buyers and sellers and a reduced number of home showings than busier months, Mr. McIlvaine noted that "the buyers going through [homes for sale] really want to buy."

"The customers' confidence is better than it was a year ago," said James P. O'Conor, chairman of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn Realtors. "The interest rates have steadied. They were good then, but not as good as now. They're going to stay low for a while, and [buyers] feel comfortable going out and buying something."

At American Ideal Mortgage in Ellicott City, business from borrowers who want to refinance home loans has outpaced purchase business in recent weeks.

"Interest in refinancing is up tremendously. It's unbelievable," said Neil Sweren, a mortgage broker and company president. "It's hard to get away from hearing about the rates."

Much of the business has come from borrowers anticipating increases on their adjustable rate mortgages who find they can get lower rates on a fixed loan. For example, rates of 7.5 percent, with no points, were available yesterday, Mr. Sweren said.

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