Sales of existing homes in metropolitan Baltimore, excluding Anne Arundel County, fell 11 percent last month, but Realtors who have grown used to much gloomier year-to-year comparisons welcomed the news as a sign of a slowly strengthening housing market.
"I think we're improving," said Brandon Gaines, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, the group that released yesterday's statistics. "From what I hear on the street and what I see, the activity level is much higher."
Existing-home sales have been down as much as 30 percent in recent months, compared to the same month a year earlier. In February, home sales were down 19 percent from February 1990.
Anne Arundel County housing sales are reported separately because the county has its own board of Realtors, separate from the Greater Baltimore Board. Anne Arundel's figures are expected to be released today.
Mr. Gaines credited lower interest rates and increased consumer confidence, which was helped by the quick ending of the Persian Gulf war, for the improving climate. "Consumer confidence has returned to a certain extent. It has a way to go, but at least the direction is positive."
The weakest market areas in March were Howard and Carroll counties, according to the board. Sales were off 22 percent in Carroll and 15 percent in Howard. Baltimore and Harford and Baltimore counties each saw home sales fall 10 percent, while Kent County, which is included in the statistics because it uses ++ the Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service, saw its sales go up 14 percent.
The average price of a home throughout the region was $120,699 in March, up less than $500 from a year earlier. The average price of a home in most of metropolitan Baltimore has been virtually flat since mid-1989.
However, average prices fell 9 percent in March in Howard County, the most expensive county in the survey with an average price of $183,978.
The news didn't sound as good to everyone as it did to Realtors.
"There's no encouragement at all in these numbers," said Daniel Gerlowski, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Baltimore. "In the real estate market, you have pent-up demand. People have been holding off, and they haven't been lured into the market yet."
Mr. Gerlowski said that 1990 home sales were held back by fears of tight lending practices by banks and higher interest rates than those that prevail today.
"Rates were loosened, and it still hasn't taken off like we thought," he said. "It's still down, and last year wasn't anything to be proud of."