Starting the year on an upswing, home sales in the Baltimore region rose 15 percent last month, driven largely by properties in low to moderate price ranges, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors said yesterday.
In January, 1,076 homes sold in Baltimore and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, compared with 932 sold in January 1995.
"Purchasing a home is becoming more affordable," said Adam D. Cockey Jr., president of the Greater Baltimore board. "Favorable interest rates, low down payment options and a good inventory are drawing first-time buyers into the market."
Regionally, the average sales price of homes fell 6 percent to $129,922, the board said. Realtors reported the bulk of sales and property showings in the under-$150,000 price range.
Since early January, when Century 21 Forty West Inc. in Ellicott City listed a house in Howard County for $335,000, only one potential buyer has come to see it, said Cindy Durgin, the agency's owner and broker.
"There are not a lot of buyers in that price range," Ms. Durgin said yesterday.
By contrast, the agency reported brisk activity in the lower price ranges -- showing 26 listings on a single day after January's snow cleared.
First-time buyers have become a strong presence in the market, many of them taking advantage of settlement assistance programs in the city and Baltimore County, she said. One of the agency's buyers, for instance, needed just $690 last month to settle on a $110,000, split-level house in Catonsville.
Sales in January increased in every jurisdiction but Howard County, where they fell 3 percent. Increases in the city and other counties ranged from 8 percent to 23 percent, the board said. The number of contract signings on properties awaiting settlement dipped slightly, from 1,108 a year ago to 1,092 last month.
Areas such as the city and Baltimore County have fared better than Howard County because of a greater percentage of lower-priced homes for sale, said Michael Funk, assistant director of the University of Baltimore's Regional Economic Studies Program.
Lower-priced homes should continue to dominate, he predicted, especially as low-wage industries add jobs faster than those paying high wages. He said the housing market this year should improve over 1995, though only moderately, with rates on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages expected to hover around 7 percent.
Thirty-year rates averaged 7.02 percent nationally as of Thursday, said the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., or Freddie Mac. At the same time, rates averaged 7.25 percent in the Baltimore region, HSH Associates of Butler, N.J., reported.
"Interest rates are certainly going to be the only driver for the real estate market," Mr. Funk said.