January was supposed to be a month that would see existing-home sales in the Baltimore metropolitan area finally cool off.
A year ago, buoyed by unseasonably warm weather and dropping mortgage rates, the real estate market had one of its best Januarys in history, prompting Realtors this year to warn that sales couldn't outpace January 1998.
But according to statistics released yesterday by the Metropolitan Regional Information System, existing-home sales for the Baltimore area climbed 17 percent over the same period last year.
"I would have considered any increase a victory. I would have considered 10 percent to be really solid continued growth," said Marc Witman, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and an associate broker with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.
"It's almost unbelievable. It couldn't be any better. These numbers are unprecedented in recent history," Witman added. For the area, it was the 18th consecutive month of increased home sales when compared with the same month of the previous year.
Anne Arundel County showed the greatest increase in sales with a 25.5 percent gain over last January. In other jurisdictions: Howard County was also up by 22 percent.
Harford County gained 17.6 percent.
Baltimore rose 11.76 percent.
Carroll County increased 10.91 percent.
Baltimore County sales grew by 8.04 percent.
"Most of the analysts that were talking around my circles were saying it could be 5 to 10 percent off the 1998 numbers, and here you are showing me a number that exceeds it by quite a bit," said Lenny Urban, manager of the Coldwell Banker Stevens Inc. office in Severna Park.
Both Urban and Witman pointed to three factors that continue to drive the market and encourage buyers: low, steady interest rates, a strong economy and good weather.
"We are still riding the wave and we are riding the wave of a stock market that is not going to quit and we are riding the wave of weather that has been wonderful. People are really optimistic about the future," Witman said.
According to Tom Champion, manager of Norwest Mortgage in Lutherville, rates for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage continue to hover between 6 3/4 and 7 1/8 percent.
"I've never seen it so stable. Not in my 12 years," Champion said. But he cautioned: "Everything changes and this [low rate] environment has been going on for some time.
"You don't know what world event will affect interest rates. Rates turn quickly. They go down gradually, but they turn upward quickly. Seven percent today can turn into being 7 3/4 tomorrow."
But one side effect of such a feverish market has been a dwindling inventory.
"The number of listings are declining as things are selling off and some people are deciding to stay put," Urban said. "Our listing inventory has been dropping all through 1998 and it's down slightly now from what it was."
The numbers seem to reflect his observation. In Baltimore County, the number of homes on the market in January 1998 was 4,854. Last month the inventory was down to 4,360 homes.
Pub Date: 2/10/99