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Home sales off, prices up

The Baltimore Sun

Home sales across the Baltimore metropolitan area tumbled nearly 10 percent in March from a year earlier but the average sales price continued to rise as the region continued a fairly smooth transition from a seller's to a buyer's market, experts said.

In Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, 2,866 homes sold, compared with 3,170 sales in March 2006, according to statistics released yesterday by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a Rockville firm that tracks homes sold through the multiple-listing system.

The average sales price rose 3.91 percent, to $306,588, MRIS said. Though that falls far short of the double-digit increases that were typical as recently as a year ago, it signaled underlying resilience in the regional market, economists said.

The average price across the region has increased in each of the past 18 months even as sales volume declined from year-earlier levels.

The biggest price gains came in Carroll County, where they rose 12 percent to an average $395,635, and Baltimore City, where the average jumped nearly 10 percent to $178,019. Anne Arundel and Howard, the two priciest counties, posted small declines of 1.08 percent and 0.17 percent, respectively.

"Prices are still up on a year-over-year basis, which is one factor that separates Baltimore from the performance of many other major metro markets which have turned negative," said Anirban Basu, chief executive officer of Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group Inc. "The bottom has not fallen out of this market."

The number of homes put on the market for the month continued to far outpace the number of sales contracts signed, a sign that the market is continuing to favor buyers.

While 6,324 homes were listed for sale in the region in March, just over half that number - 3,594 - went under contract, the statistics showed. Altogether about 16,000 homes were for sale, up from 12,000 a year earlier and 5,600 in March 2005, during the housing boom.

Homes stayed on the market about a month longer than the previous March, selling in 96 days on average compared with 59 days on average a year earlier. Sellers on average got nearly 95 percent of their asking price, compared with an average 96 percent of the list price in March 2006, the MRIS said.

Baltimore has experienced a smoother transition than areas such as Northern Virginia, Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California, thanks to the overall strength of the economy and less speculative buying and selling than in other areas, Basu said.

Also, "we are the most affordable major market on the East Coast," he said. "What buyers are looking for has changed dramatically. Two years ago [as prices rose rapidly] buyers were willing to make big bets on homes and they want to buy as much as they could finance. But today, the focus for buyers is value."

When buyers perceive a value, they are jumping to make offers, said William L. Yerman, president of the Baltimore Board of Realtors.

"There's a lot of pent-up demand," he said. "Buyers are now entering the market and eager to purchase."

Real estate agents agreed that homes priced to reflect the slower pace of price gains are selling faster and often drawing multiple offers.

"In this market, it's about the pricing," said Ashley Richardson, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker.

"The homes taking longer to sell are the ones priced significantly more than what their neighbors got for a similar house. But if you price it close to what the neighbors got for a similar house, you're going to get buyers and get buyers quickly," Richardson said.

Joe and Carolyn Fuscaldo, who are selling their three-bedroom Colonial with a den in Towson, have become so convinced that interest is picking up that they have decided against accepting any offers contingent on a buyer selling his own home.

The Fuscaldos were encouraged by an offer for their asking price of $449,000 made within a week of listing the house in February. The contract, which had a contingency clause, fell through when the buyer's house didn't sell in 30 days.

"We feel with spring coming, we've noticed a lot more traffic through the house now," Carolyn Fuscaldo said. "We feel pretty optimistic."

Kellie Langley, the real estate agent who listed the Fuscaldos' house, said March has been a mixed bag.

"I had a couple of listings that were put on and sold right away for full asking price, and that was great. A couple of other agents experienced the same thing, and we got excited like, 'It's back.' But I've had a couple [of homes] that are lingering as well."

"I'm telling my sellers, unlike in the past, you really need to go above and beyond in making your house distinguished from others in the market," she said.

Some real estate agents said the market showed signs of picking up in March, though many sellers are still pricing their homes as if the market hadn't cooled.

"Buyers are taking a little longer to make up their minds," said Noah Mumaw, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in the Cross Keys area of Baltimore. "They are more educated and want to see everything out there. There is so much stuff on the market, it takes a while to see everything. There is a lot on the market that is overpriced and slowing the market down."

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