Area home sales: stalled

The Baltimore Sun

The extended slump bedeviling home sellers appears to have dented prices in Baltimore's suburbs more than in the city itself.

In half the suburban ZIP codes last year, average sale prices sank below 2005 levels. But prices in the city remained above 2005 levels in three-quarters of its neighborhoods, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis.

Affordability is one likely factor. The average Baltimore home sold for just over $180,000 last year, while the average suburban home changed hands for about $345,000. Suburban communities that hung on to some price gains were generally less expensive than the ones that lost ground.

All this means it's not an easy time for sellers with homes aimed at the move-up crowd. Lois Hanson, who's asking $539,000 for her Monkton rancher, said the house has been on the market since September with no offers. Two couples were very interested - each returned three times after an open house. But both couples have homes, homes that haven't sold yet.

"I can't hang by my thumbs waiting for someone else to sell a property and take mine off the market," said Hanson, who wants something smaller than the four-bedroom house on more than 2 acres.

Said Paula Nicholson, a real estate agent with Long & Foster in Timonium: "I haven't had any sellers willing to entertain offers from someone with a home that's not even under contract yet, because it's too much of a domino effect."

Sellers are having trouble because prices - particularly in the suburbs - are still too high for many first-time buyers. People who can't sell their starter homes can't buy a bigger place, and the owners of those bigger places can't go anywhere, either. That's why economists say home sales probably won't increase until prices fall even more, as they have in other parts of the nation.

Waiting game

"The buyer's going to win this game of chicken," said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist and chief executive of Sage Policy Group.

The Baltimore Sun analyzed home sale data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, a Rockville company that runs the multiple-listing service used by many to buy and sell property. Only suburban ZIP codes and city neighborhoods with at least 10 sales in any given year were included, to cut down on skewed comparisons.

Economists warn that some skewing is inevitable, though. All sorts of homes were selling in 2005 because just about anyone could get a mortgage for any amount. Since then, the subprime industry that aimed loans at riskier borrowers - no money down! - has imploded. And few lenders are willing to provide large mortgages, known as "jumbos."

Now, average prices are plummeting in some communities because so many expensive homes just aren't selling. And prices will be artificially higher in any area where only the best-maintained homes are changing hands, since buyers were willing to overlook faults in 2005.

Basu suspects that prices in the city are weaker than the numbers suggest because of that sort of change in buying patterns. But it makes sense to him that Baltimore's housing market would be more stable than that of the pricier suburbs.

"The most active part of the market remains first-time homebuyers," Basu said.

Though buying peaked in 2005, prices continued to rise for some time afterward in much of the metro area. But not last year. Most of the region is down from 2007, even if average prices aren't quite to 2005 levels.

More than 85 percent of suburban ZIP codes - from expensive Glenwood in Howard County to affordable Edgewood in Harford - fell in average price last year vs. 2007. Three-quarters of city neighborhoods did too.

The overall decrease in the metro area was 3.5 percent, small compared with most of the nation. Some communities, however, saw more significant price drops.

Compared with 2007, average prices fell 17 percent in Towson's 21204 ZIP, for instance. And though one in eight city neighborhoods saw average prices rise at least 10 percent, nearly half the neighborhoods posted losses that large.

A few blocks can make a difference, said Ross Mackesey, a vice president with Coldwell Banker in Baltimore.

"In Federal Hill, in the historic district, we're holding onto prices pretty well," he said. "But if you get to the fringe, where there was a lot of speculation going on ... those areas are really taking a beating."

There's one constant across the region: a lot fewer sales.

U.S. home sales decreased 30 percent from 2005 to 2008, according to the National Association of Realtors. The Baltimore metro area? Nearly 50 percent.

Fewer metro-area homes changed hands in 2008 than any other time in the previous 10 years, as long as Metropolitan Regional Information Systems has tracked the region. It's not for want of sellers. There were 18,000 homes on the market in December alone.

"Prices haven't fallen much, but sales have collapsed," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "That suggests that prices will have to come down more for buyers to come back."

It's proving true elsewhere.

In January, sales continued to fall in the Baltimore area, but sales in California were up more than 50 percent from the year before, as median prices there plummeted 42 percent. Florida saw a significant drop in prices and a jump in sales, too. Closer to home, sales increased almost 50 percent in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, while prices dropped 22 percent.

The BRAC effect

Basu, the economist, thinks that many Baltimore-area sellers are holding out for the price they want because they hope things will improve soon. He calls it the BRAC effect - the military base realignment and closure process is supposed to bring thousands of jobs and people to the region.

Basu says sellers should expect improvement, but not in the short term. And most sellers want to sell in the short term.

Some are holding firm because cutting prices further would put them underwater on their mortgages. Twelve percent of mortgaged homes in Maryland - about 160,000 - are worth less than their loans, according to real estate information provider First American CoreLogic.

Others, like Hanson, the Monkton homeowner, want to get back what they've spent on their properties after buying. Hanson's updates since her 2005 purchase include hardwood floors, a laundry room overhaul and porch improvements to enhance views of a neighboring horse farm.

"It's a matter of waiting it out. I'm not going to start feeling anxious or disappointed unless we get to next fall," she said.

The problem for a number of potential first-time buyers - and thus for all sellers - is that prices are still high compared with incomes. After doubling between 2000 and 2007, the average metro-area home price dropped to $306,000 last year. To swing that, a first-time buyer with a 10 percent down payment would need a salary of about $70,000.

And $306,000 was the average for all homes, from condos to Colonials. Most single-family homes are more expensive.

"It's just really depressing," said Natasha V. Rossbach, 38, a Baltimore resident looking for a single-family home with her husband, John. They and their 4-year-old son are living in a relative's rowhouse, and it's cramped.

The Rossbachs, both attorneys, have had no luck after a year of looking in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties. Either the price is more than their $375,000 limit and the sellers won't budge, she said, or the houses are in bad shape.

"If I see more properties on the market, I get really excited, and then we go to look. ... There's just always something wrong with them," Natasha Rossbach said.

Some of the badly maintained homes she saw were bank-owned. Foreclosures and "short sales" - homes that go for less than the owner owes - accounted for about 44 percent of Maryland sales at the end of last year, the National Association of Realtors estimates. That's on par with the U.S. average.

Many more of these "distressed" properties could be flooding the market soon. Foreclosure information provider RealtyTrac, studying data it had on Maryland and three other states in November, found that about 70 percent of bank-owned homes weren't yet listed for sale.

More details are expected this week about the Obama administration's plan to keep more homes from joining the bank-owned rolls, but it's supposed to include incentives for lenders to modify mortgages and options for some homeowners to refinance. Zandi said that should help the U.S. housing market, along with low mortgage rates and the new $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers.

But he says it will take more for the Baltimore area to get back to housing equilibrium.

"If you look at house prices to income or house prices to [rental costs], pretty good proxies for affordability and whether buying a home makes sense relative to renting, Baltimore is very overvalued," Zandi said. "Everything suggests that we should see those prices adjust more. ... Or maybe it suggests that the market won't come back very quickly."

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