Sales pace stays brisk Rates rise, but not enough to roll back earlier momentum

'Quite peppy lately'

Open houses attract large crowds

sales prices slide, however, Homes

April 21, 1996|By Daniel H. Barkin | Daniel H. Barkin,SUN STAFF

Despite jumpy interest rates, brokers and real estate agents say that the home-selling momentum that began in the first quarter continues into the spring.

"Everybody seems to be busy," said Adam D. Cockey Jr., president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

"Interest rates are still good, even though they're moving up and down," Mr. Cockey said. He said some people are buying because they think they may be seeing rates at their lowest for 1996.

In mid-February, average 30-year fixed mortgage rates dipped to 7.16 percent in the Baltimore region, with 1.52 points, according to HSH Associates, a Butler, N.J., firm that tracks rates nationwide. They rebounded recently to 8.29 percent, with 1.43 points, before ending up at 8.07 percent, 1.57 points this past week. A year ago, the average was 8.33 percent, with 1.77 points. (Each point is an upfront fee to the lender equal to 1 percent of the loan amount. It is designed to raise the overall yield of the loan.)

Mr. Cockey believes that interest rates, while important, are less of a factor now than job security and housing values. He says he senses that the public is more confident about the economy and job prospects than it has been for several years.

"It's a fragile situation, but it's more positive than negative," Mr. 00 Cockey said.

Also, he said, prospective buyers sense that there are more good deals because sellers have been gradually coming down in price. Sellers have begun to accept that the "wonderful inflation" property values of the 1970s and 1980s has essentially stopped, he said.

Recent sales figures from local multiple-list services reflect this. Except for Anne Arundel County, the March existing-home settled-sales prices in the Baltimore region were down around 3 percent from a year ago. Used Anne Arundel homes sold for 13 percent more in March than in the same month in 1995.

The most popular type of new home in the region, the townhouse, has had an average base price of a little less than $121,000 -- virtually unchanged since 1992. In Baltimore County, the median base price of a new detached home was $183,123 at the end of 1995, some $5,000 less than in 1992, according to the Legg Mason Realty Group.

Buyers coming in

Mr. Cockey, managing director of W. H .C. Wilson & Co., said that one indicator of more buyers in the marketplace is the attendance at the midweek open houses that agents hold exclusively for brokers and Realtors.

At one recent open house in Roland Park, some 50 agents and brokers attended, he said. They're showing up because they have buyers, according to Mr. Cockey. And at some of the weekend open houses, "we had 20, 25 customers come through."

Patrick J. Kane, vice president of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty, said his company's sales contracts for the first two weeks of April are up 60 percent from the same period a year ago.

He cautioned that last year sales at this time weren't very good. "We might finally be getting even with two years ago," he said.

"Traffic has been very, very good," Mr. Kane added. At the nearly 300 open houses held by Grempler last weekend, more than 1,300 people dropped in. Mr. Kane said that his company "did a lot to create that" with advertising and other promotions, but he said that such a turnout is "excellent," nonetheless.

Alice Burch, Baltimore regional manager for Long & Foster, called business "quite peppy lately." She said the rise in interest rates didn't concern her very much. Sometimes, when interest rates are dropping, prospective buyers wait to see how low they will go. When rates nudge back up, buyers may get off the fence to lock in rates before they go higher, Ms. Burch said.

Similarly, Linda B. Yaffe, a Realtor in Long & Foster's Greenspring office, said the interest rate increases won't have much impact. "If 30-year fixed have gone up, there's so many other good programs" that are available. Real estate agents just have to be creative, she said.

J. Thomas Carruthers III, whose Fairfax, Va.-based firm acquired the Prudential Preferred Properties offices in the Baltimore region last fall, said it was the best March in his company's history, "across the board."

January was slow because of the weather, but February, March and April have been "banner months," he said. Locally, Prudential Preferred has offices in Bel Air and Lutherville, and six offices in Anne Arundel.

More agents

In Harford County, Jim Camarata, sales manager for O'Conor, Piper & Flynn's Bel Air/Forest Hill office, said, "Our phones are ringing more." In fact, Mr. Camarata is doubling up on the number of agents doing "floor duty," answering calls from prospective buyers.

From January through the end of March, Mr. Camarata's office sold 53 percent more homes, and the total value of homes sold jumped by 73 percent, he said. Some of the increase resulted from having recruited more agents, he said.

O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, the Baltimore area's largest brokerage, had a record March throughout its territory, with the value of residential sales up more than 42 percent over March 1995. Long & Foster, the mid-Atlantic's largest real estate firm, also reported a record March, with sales volume up 17 percent over 1995.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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