Pent-up demand and low but fluctuating mortgage rates have kept a steady flow of homebuyers in the Baltimore-area housing market, boosting March sales by 12 percent, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors said yesterday.
Sales rose to 1,286, up from 1,144 last March, the board said in its monthly survey of Baltimore and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.
"The very interesting thing is we're seeing these increases this early in the spring season," said Adam Cockey Jr. president of the Board of Realtors. "Considering what we had in February, the bad weather, and not the greatest of weather in March, this increase means people are really out looking at houses and making decisions and buying."
Sales for the month were up everywhere in the region but in Howard County, which saw a 4 percent decline from a year ago. The number of sales contract signings -- an indicator of final sales in coming months -- jumped 27 percent, with increases ranging from 11 percent in the city to 38 percent in Harford County.
"The activity is out there, much more than what we've seen in recent months," said Patrick Kane, vice president of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc.
Recent ups and downs in mortgage rates have played a role in jump starting a market that had stalled for much of last year, managers and brokers said.
Nationally, rates on 30-year, fixed-rate loans had bottomed out at 6.94 percent in mid-February, according to the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., known as Freddie Mac. Rates have been rising since then, averaging 7.78 yesterday, up from 7.69 a week ago.
"There was a spurt when they went up again that panicked people who were sitting around and waiting for them to come down," Mr. Kane said. "There's a lot of pent-up demand out there because it's been slow for so long."
Michael Funk, assistant director of the University of Baltimore's Regional Economic Studies Program, viewed the increases in sales and contracts as a positive sign for the local housing market.
But, he cautioned, "You have t keep in mind, we're comparing it to this time last year when the real estate market wasn't doing great and we're coming out of a time where we might have had pent-up demand due to the blizzard. It' hard to gauge based on this month's figures."
The sales increase has mean brisker business for title companies such as Residential Title & Escrow Co. on Reisterstown Road
"We are swamped," said Shina W. Parker, an assistant vice president, who said she has handle from 30 to 50 deals a month.
While sales have increased, the average sales price has fallen, from $129,731 from March 1995 to $125,274 last month, the board reported.
"We have been telling people we represent the market values of some properties have compressed over the last two or three years," Mr. Cockey said. "Sellers are starting to hear that message and becoming more reasonable about pricing."
Pub Date: 4/05/96