When area Realtors recall 1998, they know it's going to be a tough year to beat.
Energized by a December that didn't bother to take time off for the holidays, real estate agents sold more existing homes last year than in any other year in the 1990s, according to preliminary housing statistics released yesterday.
According to the Metropolitan Regional Information System -- the multiple listing service used by Realtors -- 28,991 homes were sold in the Baltimore metropolitan area last year, compared with 22,624 in 1997 -- a 28 percent increase. That also eclipsed the previous high this decade of 23,072 units sold in 1993.
For December, sales rose 33.6 percent over December 1997.
"As far as the past year is concerned, the statistics speak for themselves," said Marc Witman, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "The reason continues to be the same: healthy economy, very low interest rates and a very strong stock market.
"I've been waiting 10 years for this."
It was a dramatic turnaround for the real estate market that had bottomed out in 1995 with 19,245 homes sold, according to statistics from the Maryland Association of Realtors.
And when buyers came into the market, they set their sights on the city, which saw sales rise 41.9 percent -- on 6,820 sales -- over 1997.
Some of the city's most desirable areas experienced a frenzy that hadn't been seen since the late 1980s, when interest rates dropped from double digits and pent-up demand drove the market.
"Put a good house on the market in the fashionable neighborhoods -- Homeland, Roland Park -- and you couldn't count [on it] being on the market for more than a week and that is certainly a seller's market," said William F. Cassidy, manager of the Fell's Point office for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.
Cassidy said Canton, one of the hottest areas in the city, saw its average sales price climb from $75,432 in 1997 to $88,996 last year. And the average number of days on the market for a Canton home dropped from 104 to 92.
Other jurisdictions enjoyed similar success for the year: Carroll County had a 36 percent increase.
Howard County rose 29 percent.
Baltimore County was up 24.2 percent.
Anne Arundel County increased 20.5 percent.
Harford County was up 19.4 percent.
What was good for Baltimore in 1998 turned out to be good for Maryland, as existing sales soared almost 29 percent. Only three of the state's 23 counties -- Cecil, Kent and St. Mary's -- failed to show an increase over 1997.
"It was an extraordinary year. Our best year ever by far," said P. Wesley Foster, president of Long & Foster.
Long & Foster reported that company sales reached $12.1 billion in 1998, compared with $8.9 billion in 1997, a 36 percent increase. O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA and Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc. -- although not releasing dollar figures -- said their home sales were also up more than 30 percent.
"It's the best year in a generation, not just for us but for the industry," said James P. O'Conor, chief executive officer of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. O'Conor added that his company has had a record 19 consecutive months of increased month-over-month sales.
For D. R. Grempler, president of Coldwell Banker Grempler, 1998 was a year that "kept rolling and rolling. It was a good year."
About the only aspect of the market that concerns agents is that the high sales volume caused the area's housing inventory to shrink.
"The biggest problem that we have seen in Baltimore this year is lack of supply," said Karen Bisbee of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn's Greenspring office. "And it is not an insignificant problem. It's a pretty dramatic problem. We have loads of buyers and very little to sell them."
Pub Date: 1/15/99