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Sales of existing houses in metro area continue to rise


Home buyers in the Baltimore metropolitan area seemingly aren't paying heed to talk of a softening economy or a stock market slide, as sales of existing homes in April rose 19.18 percent compared with the same month last year.

"I hold my breath every month waiting for the numbers to go down," said Patrick Welsh, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "This is a great market."

The rise in sales continued the upward trend for the area that began in September, after the market seemed to show signs of fatigue last summer.

The combination of lower fixed-rate mortgages, which have drifted between 7 percent and 7.5 percent since fall, a solid local economy and an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent - lower than the national average of 4.3 percent - have blended to keep buyers in the market.

Every jurisdiction showed a double-digit increase for April, according to statistics released by the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the multiple listing database used by real estate brokers.

The most activity came in Harford County, which was up 30 percent over April 2000. Baltimore City was next, rising 26.95 percent; Carroll County gained 22.93 percent; Howard County was up 16.67 percent; Baltimore County rose 14.41 percent; and Anne Arundel jumped 14.21 percent.

If there are any doubts about which way the market is heading, it seems to point one way: up. The number of pending contracts, those signed but yet to go to settlement, rose 19.21 percent over the same month last year.

"Gains on a monthly basis can swing so widely, but if you look at trends what it clearly shows is that people are truly enthusiastic about the economy," Welsh said.

"When you watch the business news networks, which are so focused on what is happening on Wall Street, you get a really slanted view of what's happening in the real economy. And the real economy is what is happening on Wallford Drive in Dundalk, not Wall Street."

Stable inventory

Housing inventory, which continues to be the biggest enemy of this market, remained stable from March, rising by 86 listings to 10,955 homes for sale in the Baltimore metropolitan region. In comparison, there were 12,599 homes on the market in April 2000.

"We have many, many more buyers than inventory," said Sharon Callahan, manager of the O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA office in Hampstead. "This has been a continual issue all year. The demand for the housing has been amazing.

"We sold 25 units last month; that is awesome for this office," she said, noting that her office has 24 agents - modest in comparison with many offices.

"It's pretty awesome. ... [Buyers] are coming from all over the place. Remember, this used to be a farm community. It is no longer a farm community."

What seems to have stabilized is the average price of a home in the area, declining by 0.09 percent to $155,754 from $155,900 in April 2000. Those averages, however, might have been even lower if it weren't for Howard County, where prices continued to go through the roof.

Selling high and fast

The average price of a home in Howard County was up 15.68 percent to $227,160, from $196,361 in April 2000. For a single-family detached home, it rose 26.68 percent to $328,060 from $258,970. For townhouses and condominiums combined there was an increase of 9.84 percent to $151,884 from $138,277.

And Howard County home hunters aren't taking any time thinking about buying, as the average days on the market for a home sank to 33 from 51 in April 2000. Of the 350 homes sold last month, 253 went off the market within 30 days of being listed.

All of this is no surprise to Steve James of Re/Max Columbia, who has seen buyers willing to bid well over asking price and drop all contingencies - financing, radon and home inspections - to get the house they want.

"We know going in that there are going to be multiple contracts," James said, when submitting offers on behalf of his buyers.

The biggest downturn in price came in Baltimore City, where it dropped 12.83 percent from $82,684 to $72,073. But Welsh didn't see that as a negative.

"It doesn't mean that the prices of houses in the city are going down, what it means is that the lower- and more-moderate priced houses are beginning to move now," Welsh said.

He noted that the averages reflect Realtor-based statistics, not "investor-to-investor" deals that would not show up in the multiple list.

"You have to attribute a lot of that to the new confidence that people have in the city."

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