Drop in home sales extends to 4th month; Snow, less inventory are blamed for decline of 9% from Jan. 1999; Howard sales plunge 28.3%; Sales in city rose 9.4%, the lone exception to slump in region


Sales of existing homes in the Baltimore metropolitan area sagged for the fourth consecutive month as real estate agents blamed the softening on a continued weak inventory and inclement weather.

January sales fell by 9.01 percent from the comparable period last year, according to statistics released yesterday by the Metropolitan Regional Information System, the multiple listing database used by the housing industry.

The monthly decline was the biggest since June 1997, just before the market began to take off.

Only the city showed a rise in sales, growing 9.39 percent over January 1999. Howard County, where it took a property an average of 73 days to sell, saw a 28.26 percent decrease.

Anne Arundel County was down 7.97 percent; Harford County dropped 8.57 percent; Baltimore County declined 10.44 percent; and Carroll County was off 17.65 percent.

Nevertheless, real estate agents in the metropolitan area say they don't believe the good times are coming to an end. Their immediate problem is that there are still too many buyers for what is on the market.

"I don't see it being over," said Marc Witman, former president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and an agent for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.

"This is not like the stock market. [Inventory] can't keep going up forever. You can sell as much stock as people want to buy. You can't sell houses that aren't there. We can't manufacture as much product as the market wants to buy."

The number of homes for sale at the end of the month in the metropolitan area nudged up to 12,002, which was 196 more than at December's end. In January 1999, 15,318 homes were on the market.

"We got hit by a huge storm in January," said John G. Evans, president of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. "That did slow things down for sure. Even with a slowdown this can be a very good year."

Said Donnell Spivey, an agent with Re/Max Columbia: "I think the weather is playing a big part. But as soon as the weather clears, it will kick off. There's just not a lot to choose from. Not just in Howard, but in Baltimore County -- You are hearing frustrations [from buyers]."

But while the number of homes for sale grew slightly, buyers continued to see rising home prices.

The average sales price for a single-family detached home in the area rose to $220,865, from $199,856 in January 1999, a 10.51 percent increase. The average price for a townhouse rose to $105,495 from $99,785, up 5.72 percent from January 1999.

"A lot of [buyers] have resolved to the fact that there is not a whole lot out there," said Pat Hiban, an agent with Re/Max Advantage in Howard County. "They are just waiting . And we can't find anything. We can't even call them."

Witman said he has a specific indicator that will tell him that the market is changing: "When you start to see three or four houses come on the market in Homeland or Roland Park or Mount Washington, and they are good houses and priced appropriately, and they don't sell pretty quickly, that will indicate that the pent-up demand is gone."

What is happening is not surprising to Anirban Basu, director of applied economics at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University.

"The overall economy is not to blame, it is growing by leaps and bounds. It is an inventory and to lesser extent a housing affordability issue." Basu said consumers were "spoiled" by last year's 7 percent mortgage rates as opposed to this year's 30-year fixed rates that are hovering near 8.5 percent.

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