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Housing sales drop locally, jump nationally

Housing sales drop locally, jump nationally

February home sales in the Capital Region dropped 25 percent compared with February 2008, according

February home sales in the Capital Region dropped 25 percent compared with February 2008, according to the Greater Capital Association of Realtors.

The average selling price, meanwhile, dropped 12 percent over the past year, from $215,010 in February 2008, to $188,438 this past February, according to the association.

“The market is certainly not active,” said James Ader, chief executive officer of GCAR, an organization that represents real estate agents in 10 counties, including the Capital Region and areas north and south of the region.

But Ader stressed that the local real estate market “is not dead, sales are taking place.”

He said first-time home buyers are becoming more active. He said the $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time buyers, the historically low mortgage rates and the availability of many homes on the market whose prices have been reduced are attracting a lot of interest.

Local real estate agents say they have been seeing much more interest in the housing market in the past two or three weeks. Some say the warmer-than-normal March weather has helped.

“In the last two weeks there has been a tremendous amount of activity,” said Kathleen Revell, a team leader at Geraldine Associates, a Realty USA business in Saratoga Springs. “People need to have confidence,” she said. “We do live in a stable area.

“I’ve seen a big change in activity,” Revell said. “There are more people requesting showings and more offers.

“I think we are coming back.”

Revell said four months is the average length of time a house is on the market in the Saratoga Springs area. “Patience is key,” she said.

Ader said that the months of November through February are traditionally the slowest for home sales.

Montgomery County posted the biggest decline in the region, but sales activity there is never as busy as in the much more populous counties to the east. Only 11 Montgomery County homes were sold in February as compared with 17 in February 2008, a decline of 35 percent. The average sale price of a home in Montgomery County dropped 20 percent, from $93,600 to $74,768, according to GCAR.

In Saratoga County, meanwhile, residential sales dropped 29 percent from 208 to 148. The average sale price for homes dropped 9 percent, from $283,167 to $257,604.

Albany County posted the smallest decline: 8 percent from 169 in February 2008 to 155 last month. The average sale price shrank 14 percent, from $224,089 to $192,662.

On the national level, sales of existing homes posted a surprising rebound. One month does not a recovery make, but the February jump was a welcome if tentative sign of hope that the real estate market may be stabilizing.

While sales of existing homes remain at lows not seen in more than a decade, economists were encouraged by the news, saying it reflected buyers who were taking advantage of deep discounts on foreclosures and other distressed properties. That’s essential if home prices are to find their long-awaited bottom.

Prices plunged by almost 16 percent from a year ago in February and are expected to keep falling well into 2009. Tens of thousands of homes remain tied up in the foreclosure process and are not yet for sale. Plus, as the recession deepens and job losses mount, many buyers are likely to stay on the sidelines.

“The four-letter word in the housing market is ‘jobs,’ ” said Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “If you’re worried about having a job tomorrow, you’re not likely to buy a home now.”

The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of existing homes grew 5.1 percent to an annual rate of 4.72 million last month, from 4.49 million units in January.

It was the largest monthly sales jump since July 2003, with first-time buyers accounting for about half of all transactions. Home sales activity has returned to December’s levels but still remains lower than most of last year.

Without adjusting for seasonal factors, though, sales nationwide were down more than 10 percent from a year earlier.

The median sales price in February skidded to $165,400, down from $195,800 a year earlier. That was the second-largest drop on record and prices are now off 28 percent from their peak in July 2006.

However, in a positive sign, sellers’ asking prices are starting to rise in places like San Diego and Orange County, Calif., said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors. That could be an early indication that prices are stabilizing in the most distressed parts of the country.

Meanwhile, in contrast with the housing boom, when buyers took out ever-riskier loans and maxed out their home equity lines, “homebuyers are not over-stretching” Yun said. “They want to stay within their budget.”

The number of unsold homes on the market last month rose 5 percent to 3.8 million, a typical increase for the winter months. At February’s sales pace, it would take almost 10 months to rid the market of all of those properties.

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