Sales of existing homes in most of metropolitan Baltimore rose 11 percent in October, prompting Realtors to hail the effects of lower interest rates and a skeptical economist to say the numbers look good only because the market was so miserable this time last year.
The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors said that the number of contracts reached last month rose to 1,250, well above the 1,125 in October 1990 -- but still well below the 1,623 sold in October 1989.
The figures cover Baltimore and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Kent counties. Anne Arundel County has its own Board of Realtors and reports its sales separately.
"I think we're pretty happy," said Nancy Hubble, a partner at W. H. C. Wilson & Co. in Baltimore and vice president of the Board of Realtors. "At least it's an upturn."
But Michael A. Conte, director of the Center for Business and Economic Studies at the University of Baltimore, was not impressed by the second straight local monthly gain in existing home sales.
"All this really means is that September and October last year were horrible months, and we are more or less holding steady in what is a fairly depressed situation," he said. "The numbers are really not, unfortunately, that encouraging. To get back where we were, we would have to be seeing numbers of plus 20 to plus 40 percent."
But Ms. Hubble said that the jump indicates consumers have regained at least some confidence in their economic prospects. That, combined with lower mortgage rates, is what she said is driving what the Realtors called a "slow recovery."
Adjustable-rate mortgages can be found with starting rates as low as 5.25 percent, she said.
Baltimore County showed the biggest gains in sales, rising 23 percent from the pace of October 1990.
Average prices rose 7 percent from October 1990, to $128,469. Monthly market-wide price comparisons can vary widely depending on the selection of homes on the market, however, so the price gains may not sustain themselves.
For most of the year, the average price of an existing home has been flat or up by less than the rate of inflation.