Home sales decline 30% in the region

The Baltimore Sun

Home sales in metropolitan Baltimore tumbled again in November, the third consecutive month that sales have dropped about 30 percent. Prices also fell slightly as the market headed into the traditionally slow holiday selling season.

Sales in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties declined to 1,892 homes last month, a 30.77 percent retreat from November 2006, statistics released yesterday showed.

The string of declines - volume fell 31.74 percent in October and 29.72 percent in September - is the most severe recorded by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which began tracking sales through the multiple-listing service in 1999. The region's biggest decline was in Anne Arundel County, where sales skidded nearly 42 percent.

The average sales price in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties notched down a fraction of a percentage point, to $308,477 from $309,753 a year earlier. It was the region's first drop in average value since August and only the third monthly price decline this year. Despite slower sales and the credit crisis, prices in the region have held up.

Home prices were down in four of the six jurisdictions, the most in Carroll - nearly 7 percent - and Howard, down 6.3 percent. Average home prices rose 3.6 percent in Anne Arundel and 6.47 percent in Baltimore County.

"By and large, we remain very much in the midst of our local housing downturn," said Anirban Basu, chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group, of Baltimore.

"Right now, many buyers remain disengaged from the market, with some simply nervous about the value of their existing property and not looking to acquire more. Buyers have felt asking prices are too high ... and have felt prices are set to fall. And sellers have not recognized much of that in their asking prices until recently."

"There are some buyers - not as many as there were two years ago. But for the most part, people have just stepped back and are waiting - it's unclear what they're waiting for," said Jane Rowley, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Federal Hill. "There's that expectation that [prices] are going to go down, or have gone down, and that sellers will accept very low bids. That's not actually what's happening."

Properties that are selling faster tend to fall in lower price ranges, said Pete France, a real estate agent with ReMax by the Bay, who handles properties throughout the region.

"Anything in the price range between $90,000 and $250,000 is moving steadily, anything above that is slow," France said. He said sellers are becoming more realistic and pricing their properties more in line with the current market. "Right now, the buyers who have good credit are getting phenomenal deals, but the lending criteria is much tighter."

The National Association of Realtors said yesterday that it believes the market is on the verge of stabilizing and raised its forecast of the number of homes it expects will be sold to 5.67 million in 2007, from a projected 5.66 million.

The association also forecast a slight increase in sales in 2008 to 5.7 million. The forecast was the first time the Realtors increased projections after nine straight months of downward revisions.

Basu said he expects the market to limp along for at least the next year, and expects it will take a psychological shift among buyers to turn it around.

In one positive sign, the active inventory has not been rising as quickly as it had been, he said. If inventory starts to decline, the market could begin to rebound, he said.

There were 19,502 active listings last month, down nearly a thousand from the previous month. Still, inventory levels are nearly double that of two years ago.

The MRIS statistics pointed to signs that sellers are softening their prices. The average listing price of homes that sold in Carroll, Harford and Howard counties was lower than a year earlier.

And sellers overall accepted 91.75 percent of their asking price on average, down from not quite 94 percent the year before.

In Baltimore, homes that were sold last month had been on the market an average of 105 days, 40 percent longer than the average of 75 days in November 2006, MRIS said.

Moin Hussaini, a management consultant who recently got married and moved to Los Angeles, has had no offers on his three-bedroom townhouse in Baltimore Butcher's Hill, which was put up for sale in August. He's hoping a $10,000 price reduction, to $345,000, will prod an offer.

"I actually think it's a fairly decent time to buy," he said. But "people are just not looking at it, which is frustrating. But I'm fully prepared to rent it out if I need to."


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