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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Housing Activity: “not as bad as some think; not as good as some would like”

Not even the lowest interest rates in decades could entice wary house-hunters last month. Home sales around Western and Central Washington remained sluggish with pending sales lagging year-ago levels, but not all the numbers were down.

June’s pending sales (mutually accepted offers) outgained the total for May by 5.8 percent. Closed sales were up from both a year ago and the previous month. Brokers also applauded congressional approval of legislation to extend the tax credit deadline on contracts signed by the April 30 deadline. That measure, which President Obama signed on July 2, pushes the deadline to Sept. 30.

“In general consumers seem to be stuck in uncertainty surrounding the world’s economic concerns, our lack of jobs and the rollercoaster of the stock market. They seem to be hunkering down despite the lowest interest rates in years,” said NWMLS director Frank Wilson. On a more upbeat note, Wilson said the deadline extension for the tax credit is good news. “Congress has acknowledged the length of time it is taking banks to close a transaction by passing this extension,” he remarked. Without the extension, the National Association of Realtors estimates as many as 180,000 buyers wouldn’t have qualified for a tax credit of up to $8,000 because they couldn’t meet the June 30 deadline to close on their purchase.

The latest report from Northwest Multiple Listing Service shows mixed news across its 21-county market area, with arrows going in both directions.

“The current market is not as bad as some people think, and not as good as some people would like it to be,” observed NWMLS director Pat Grimm. He also said the combination of low interest rates and affordable prices are the best he’s seen in his 25 years of experience in real estate.

The MLS summary statistics for June show: Pending sales of single family homes and condominiums (combined) fell 28 percent from a year ago, but rose 5.8 percent from May. Year-to-date (through June), pending sales are up 12.4 percent compared to midyear 2009. Closed sales for June outgained the same month a year ago by 617 transactions (up 12 percent), and rose 8.9 percent from May’s total. The median price for last month’s completed transactions is down about 7 percent from twelve months ago. Four counties (Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis and Pacific) reported price increases from a year ago, while eight other counties had declines of less than 5 percent.

NWMLS director Wilson surmised the drop in pending sales could be just a dip as kids get out of school “and we rush to embrace summer” or a “hangover from the tax credit,” but cautioned, “It’s too early to tell.”

“The economy is still recovering and that makes some consumers hesitant to buy,” Grimm stated, adding, “On the other hand, with prices down and mortgage rates at their lowest in 50 years, homes are more affordable now than they were before the tax credit went into effect.”

Grimm said the market has created its own incentive for buyers who missed out on the most recent tax credit. “Lower prices and lower interest rates more than offset the benefit of the tax credit. Homes are actually more affordable than they were three months ago, and that factors in the tax credit,” he emphasized. To illustrate his point, he said the purchaser of a $500,000 property this month with a $400,000 mortgage would save more than $250 per month as a result of the interest rate drop. “Do the math and you can see you are way ahead if you stay in the property for more than three years.”

House-hunters have plenty of choices. Brokers added 10,354 new listings to inventory last month, bringing the selection to 42,940 residences being offered for sale system-wide. That’s up about 4 percent from a year ago. Included in the current listings are 36,027 single family homes priced from $8,500 to $25 million, and 6,913 condominiums priced from $20,000 to $15.6 million.

Asked if now is the right time to buy, Grimm replied, “You can’t time the real estate market any more than you can time the stock market,” but added, “If you want to buy a home, and can afford it, I haven’t seen a better convergence of affordable prices and low interest rates in the 25 years I’ve been working in real estate.”
Last week’s benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage fell to 4.75 percent, according to the Bankrate.com national survey of large lenders. That’s the lowest rate for the 30-year fixed in the nearly 25-year history of Bankrate's weekly survey. Freddie Mac reported an average of 4.58 percent, the lowest level in more than five decades.
Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic, said economists at that California-based firm see a U-shaped recovery, similar to the 2000 recession, but with a longer, more pronounced bottom. Because of various factors at play, including the expiration of the tax incentives and various mortgage modification programs affecting distressed properties, he expects the real estate market to “sag through the summer and slower cooler months,” but believes it will eventually grow in line with economic and income growth “as we put the great recession further behind us.”
Northwest Multiple Listing Service, owned by its member brokers, is the largest full-service MLS in the Northwest. Its membership includes more than 24,000 brokers and agents. The organization, based in Kirkland, currently serves 21 counties in Western and Central Washington.

Statistical Summary of Market Activity - June 2010
Single Fam. Homes + Condos in Thurston County
NEW LISTINGS = 525
TOTAL ACTIVE = 1,973
# Pending Sales = 303
# Closings = 296
Avg. Price = $252,888
Median Price = $235,000

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