Cindy Ariosa's business has been a popular conversation starter at parties the past three years.
But the president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors expects that people will be less likely to chat about the extraordinary run-up in housing sales and prices: They are expected to cool in 2004 after three years of record growth.
"That kind of price growth can't be sustained, but as other areas of the economy strengthen, we should still benefit," said Ariosa, a vice president and regional manager for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.
Real estate has been the most consistent driver of the national economy since 2000, as the stock market plummeted and then rebounded. The housing industry expects solid results this year, but does not expect prices to sizzle at the pace of recent years in Central Maryland.
"We believe the market is past its white-hot pace, but we think it will be very strong," said Ed Gold, president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.
Median home prices in the region rose by 13.5 percent in 2002 and 16 percent in 2003, according to the National Association of Realtors. The group expects prices to rise 10 percent this year.
Baltimore-area homeowners have seen an average increase of $57,900 in home equity during the past two years, according to the Realtors' group. The median price of a Baltimore-area home was $220,200 at the end of September, the most recent month for which data are available.
Most of the appreciation has come as a result of historically low interest rates and higher demand. Rates dropped in June to a level not seen in nearly a half-century: 5.21 percent for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.
Real estate experts predict that they'll be working with shoppers like Rashawn Robinson, 23, a hopeful first-time buyer who wants to take advantage of the low mortgage rates and what she hopes is a better market for prices.
She has been shopping for several months and hopes to make a purchase by April.
"I found some things that I really love, but the prices are really high," Robinson said.
Real estate agents said a stronger economy can mean more home sales even if interest rates inch up as expected.
"What I hope is that there is a balance," said Nicci Hyatt, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Roland Park and a member of the Baltimore Byrne Cohen Hyatt Team. "If interest rates do edge up, at the same time we're hoping to see a little more confidence in consumers about spending."
The mortgage industry will probably lose workers, too, after enjoying a refinance boom that extended through much of 2003. The Mortgage Bankers Association of America predicts that roughly 15 percent of mortgage lenders will lose their jobs as fewer people take on new home loans.
Most lenders are targeting minority and immigrant homebuyers, given government efforts to expand homeownership.
"That is our major growth opportunity in the next three years," said Bob Kaestner, a vice president with Bank of America and spokesman for the Maryland Mortgage Bankers Association.
Benchmark 30-year mortgage rates average 16.63 percent - the highest since 1963, earliest federal data.
30-year rates hit 45-year low, 5.21 percent, as home sales post third-straight record year in Baltimore and nationally.
Home prices expected to cool, but still post 10 percent gains in Baltimore area.