After four consecutive months of declining sales, the Baltimore housing market did an about-face last month as existing home sales edged ahead 2.69 percent over the same period last year.
The rebound, according to statistics released yesterday by the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., was aided by strong sales in the city -- up 17.09 percent -- and in Carroll and Howard counties.
But whether the rebound will continue is unclear. Pending sales, an indication of future closings, were down 9.6 percent for February.
"I have a sense that people have made the calculation that interest rates are not going down anytime soon, and if you are looking to buy a home within the next year, the best time to buy is right now because you are probably are not going to be looking at more favorable terms in the next 12 months," said Anirban Basu, director of applied economics, at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University.
Last week, the average 30-year mortgage rate for the Baltimore area was 8.24 percent.
At the end of February 1999, the 30-year average rate in Baltimore stood at 6.85 percent, and in the last 12 months has climbed as high as 8.33 percent.
"During previous months, people got a little rattled by these higher interest rates and wanted to know if this was just a passing phase or something more permanent," Basu said. "I think it is pretty clear that this is something more permanent, and that we are not going to go back to a lower interest rate regime anytime soon. If that is the case, why wait?"
Baltimore County showed the biggest decline in sales, dropping 9.5 percent. Harford County was off by 8.81 percent and Anne Arundel was down 1.32 percent.
And many Realtors continue to fret about the lack of inventory to show potential buyers.
At the end of February, 11,962 properties were for sale in the metropolitan area, 40 fewer than at the end of January and 3,309 fewer than at the end of February 1999, a decline of 21.66 percent.
"If we were carrying all the listing inventory that we were used to, things would have been jumping a lot sooner," said Sharon Callahan, manager of the Hampstead office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA in Carroll County. "In terms of listings, it's growing, but it has been tenuous at best."
Callahan added that buyer activity had been on the upswing in the last several weeks.
Joan Pitroff, manager of the Ellicott City office of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc., also said inventory isn't replenishing because "people have taken out equity [with home equity loans] and are not in a position to sell."
"The other reason is that there were so many buyers for the entire year [in 1999] that they used up the inventory, they depleted the inventory," Pitroff said.
In Howard County, 315 single-family detached homes priced between $200,000 and $300,000 were for sale in February 1999. Last month, 148 were on the market in that category.
With less supply and more demand, home prices throughout the area have continued to rise.
The average sales price for the metropolitan area rose 3.37 percent to $149,570.
But single-family detached homes more than doubled that, rising 8.8 percent to an average price of $212,810.
Townhouse average prices were up 2.93 percent, to $102,056.