Home sales down, but signs are looking up

Sales have been steady without last year's government credit, inventory is decreasing, prices are stabilizing and interest rates are low.


WALLA WALLA - Home sales in the Walla Walla area were down the first quarter of the year, but real estate experts believe spring could add a little bounce to market activity.

Bolstered last year by the government's Buyer Tax Credit program, sales were up 25 percent during the first three months of 2010 compared to this year, said Doug Simcock, broker at Windermere Walla Walla.

Nevertheless, sales have been steady without the credit, inventory is decreasing, prices are stabilizing and interest rates are low - an equation for affordability for those in the market for a home, he said. Despite the drop from last year, he said Walla Walla's market is slowly stabilizing.

"I like the feel of the market better this year," Simcock said. "Affordability remains high and the market is not being propped up by government incentives."

Numbers from the Multiple Listing Service showed the median price of a home sold in Walla Walla County in the first quarter was $172,833, meaning half the homes were priced higher than that and half the homes were priced lower.

That figure was steady from the last quarter of 2010, when the median price was around $171,000, but was down about 4 percent from the same quarter in 2010, Simcock said.

The average sales price for homes sold during the first quarter of 2011 was $194,466, down about 3 percent from the first three months of last year. The number of homes on the market at the end of March was down about 2 percent from the first quarter of 2010 at 416.

Glen Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University, said last year's tax credit has skewed the picture of sales a bit. He said it will take a quarter or two of sales in 2011 to get a better understanding of what's happening with the market as consumers consider housing purchases.

For those who qualify, the timing is good, he said. During the last quarter of 2010, when the median price of a home was roughly the same as it was for the first quarter of this year, his organization measured affordability in Walla Walla County at a rate of 173.7.

The affordability index measures the ability of a typical family to make payments on a median-priced resale home, assuming a 20 percent downpayment and 30-year amortizing mortgage. A value of 100 means that a family with the median income has exactly enough income to qualify for a mortgage on a median-priced home.

Crellin said affordability is based on three factors: home prices, family income in the area and mortgage interest rates. The latter has been low and the former has been dropping, he said.

"For many people considering a home purchase, this is a good sign," Simcock echoed. "If you have a job, if your business is going well, the market is good."

Dennis Ledford, broker at Coldwell Banker First Realtors, said his office had already received seven written offers on homes. Homes priced in the $175,000-$275,000 range are seeing the most interest from buyers.

He said there's plenty of encouraging anecdotal evidence about market recovery: his office listed 56 homes last month; open-house activity is picking up; agents are reporting a lot more consumer energy.

"I think, overall the market's strong," he said. "It's closer to a normal market."


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