For Ignatius "Iggy" Stefanski, the health of the housing industry can be measured by how many holes he digs. And last week, he dug a lot of holes.
"We are the best barometer in the world, because we service everybody," he said yesterday from his booth at the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors annual convention.
Stefanski, president of Odenton-based LJS & Associates, installs and removes thousands of heavy 2-by-4 "For sale" signs for 485 real estate companies in seven states, including Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. and O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA.
After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, he admitted, he was "scared to death" that his business would plummet, and it did for four days after Sept. 11.
"But when we got in on Monday, the faxes were loaded up. It was like any other Monday, and it was business as usual. Now we are three weeks away, and we had the best week we've ever had for a September in 23 years," Stefanski said.
Typically, job orders run about 1,700 a week, but last week he got 2,100 orders from real estate agents.
Indeed, many of the hundreds of real estate professionals mulling about the Exhibition Hall at the Maryland State Fairgrounds were cautiously optimistic that the real estate market would continue to thrive, although not at the same robust pace.
Alan R. Ingraham, regional vice president for First Horizon Home Loans MNC Division and incoming president of the GBBR, said 62 percent of the loans originated in September were for home purchases, the highest level in more than three years.
"There are a lot of people who have mentally made up their mind that they are going to make a move because of circumstances they have personally. Those who haven't [made up their minds] may well sit on the fence. But those who are in the system in some way, shape or form are going to continue through with it," Ingraham said.
Carol Molloy, manager of the OPF office in Catonsville, said, "The market is still there. We still have a lot of clients."
Although the softening economy and waves of layoffs may make some first-time homebuyers reconsider, Ingraham said interest rates on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages - now ranging between 6.5 percent and 7 percent and the lowest since 1998 - should keep enough buyers in the market.
He added that one-year adjustable-rate mortgages - those that adjust upward or downward on an annual basis - can be found in the 4 percent range.
"There are enough people out there who are seeing interest rates so low, that it tends to offset their anxiety level," Ingraham said.
Cindy Ariosa, vice president and regional manager for the Baltimore area for Long & Foster, said September sales were 1 percent higher than the same period last year, though she suggested that the bidding wars common in the last several years are likely to subside.
"I do not think that we are going to get four or five contracts on every property," she said, although she added: "Open houses are still busy. Traffic is still busy. Our sales have not been affected."
John Evans, president of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA, said sales for his company were off "by a couple of percent," but September ended better than he expected.
"People in the process of doing things rebounded quicker than I would have thought. It made the month a better month," Evans said.