In a hot real estate market, there is the need for speed. And Steven James, a real estate agent in hot Howard County, might be taking his buyers to the next level with the push of a button.
"When they get that call - we call it a 911 call - when a house hits the market, they have to be ready to react," James said. "We have thought about giving people pagers. Literally, giving them pagers. If inventory stays this low, and definitely demand is cranking up again, I would suspect that we would go to something like that.
"When your light goes off, that means your house is ready."
Baltimore's housing boom isn't ready to go bust any time soon, according to industry professionals. Bucking the national trend that shows sales slowing down, home purchases in the metropolitan area are on a roll. According to final 2000 statistics released by the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the multiple listing database used by brokers, existing home sales for the region were up 1.68 percent over 1999, with 31,405 homes sold vs. 30,886 the previous year.
To put in context how far on the housing ladder Baltimore has climbed, consider that in 1995, with the area in economic doldrums, 19,245 homes were sold. Yet with each succeeding year of higher sales, the upshot has been a reduction in inventory.
When Baltimore's most recent boom began in late 1997, the area was flush with existing homes for sale. At the end of 1997, 14,871 homes were on the market. In 1998, with mortgage rates dropping, stock prices rising and sellers ready to move up into their next homes, the inventory reached 15,625.
But, during the past two years, the demand has outstripped supply, eroding the inventory by almost a third with the number of active listings dropping to 11,046 by the end of January, the latest figures available. In Howard County, 1,684 homes were for sale in January 1998. Two months ago, there were 683 active listings - less than one for each of the approximately 750 members of the Howard County Association of Realtors.
Other jurisdictions have seen similar drops from the highs of January 1998 to January this year. In Anne Arundel, the number has swooned from 4,084 to 1,743; in Baltimore County, from 4,854 to 2,849; in Carroll County, from 1,070 to 679; and Harford County, from 1,548 to 1,120.
"I have never seen it so tight," said Rich Dobry, a Re/Max agent in Severna Park who specializes in waterfront properties. "On the waterfront, if they are clean and priced right, they are gone within a week. And I do a lot of waterfront, and I've never seen it like this. We've had two years of the hottest market. If an agent can't make it in this market, they shouldn't be in business."
Baltimore, with its seemingly endless supply of rowhouses, has maintained its inventory, hovering around 3,900 homes for sale. But Realtors working some of the city's most desirable areas, such as Homeland, Guilford, Roland Park, Mount Washington, Bolton Hill, Federal Hill and Canton, say the market is as tight as they have ever seen it.
To lure new listings, various agents from Hill & Co., a boutique firm in Cross Keys known for its luxury listings and buyers who can afford them, placed newspaper ads in the past several weeks with the headings: "Please Help" and "Wanted!"
"Both 2000 and 1999 were tight markets ... but right now, this is tighter," said Tim Rodgers, president of Hill & Co. "I don't think we are getting as many listings as it used to be in previous years.
"The trouble is there are a lot of big hitters running around, and it is just hard to find them something. Homeland and Roland Park are in big demand. Bolton Hill. Mount Vernon. Ruxton. Murray Hill. The closer-in neighborhoods are more popular ... ; they are flying off the market. The ones that are well-maintained and are attractively done get the top dollar. The double-income family doesn't have time to rehab a whole house. So they are willing to pay for everything to be done for them."
`Selling in a heartbeat'
Even in Harford County, the crunch is on.
"Right now, there is a lack of inventory overall probably in the single-family price range of $150,000 to $250,000. That range is just selling in a heartbeat," said Diana Hirschhorn, a top producer in the Forest Hill office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. "I have been in more multiple offers in the last six months than I have probably been in my entire career combined."
Patrick Welsh, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, understands that the frustration level of many agents and buyers is ticking upward in those highly sought neighborhoods from Howard to Harford.
"It just makes the job of agents that much more difficult," Welsh said. "And, unfortunately, sometimes buyers blame the agents when they miss that house. When you get multiple contracts, there can only be that one buyer. ... "