Baltimore-area home sales rose 15 percent in April compared with a year earlier, and newly pending deals soared as buyers kicked the spring housing market into higher gear, according to data released Friday.
Prices remained largely unchanged at $238,000 for the typical home in the region — Baltimore and its five suburban counties. That remains well under the region's April peak of $275,000 six years ago, after the housing bubble pushed up prices but before the bust and financial crisis deflated them.
Still, sellers as a group are getting closer to their asking price than they have in five years, said Rockville-based RealEstate Business Intelligence. And RBI said the number of local homes for sale "remains historically low," helping to drive down the typical time on the market to its shortest in nearly seven years.
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John F. Sullivan, vice president of Buyer's Edge Co. Inc. in Federal Hill, said sparse supply is the No. 1 problem for prospective buyers. He blames the lack of options on price gyrations over the past decade — many homeowners bought when values were high and owe more on their mortgage than the property is worth.
"It's going to take a while before some people are out from underwater," said Sullivan, an exclusive buyer's agent whose company does not represent sellers. "Anything ... on the market that's good and properly priced is sold in the first 10 days."
The pool of for-sale homes shrank further in April. But buyers eager for more choices had something to cheer about: The number of homes newly listed for sale jumped nearly 20 percent.
"The rise in new listings could indicate that sellers are starting to be drawn into the market by higher price points and faster sale times," said RBI, the data arm of the region's multiple-listing service, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.
Locally, median sale prices were all over the board in April — up at least 3 percent in most of the region, but down 4 percent in Baltimore County and 7 percent in Howard County.
It's not always possible to judge price trends by the median, or midpoint, because it depends on the mix of homes selling in any given month. April's sale increase was driven by buyers of condos and townhouses, which generally are less expensive than single-family homes.
Condominium sales jumped 33 percent compared with a year ago, while townhouse sales rose 23 percent. Sales of single-family homes rose 7 percent.
What's really happening to the price of local homes is small increases, Sullivan said, not the escalations that came the last time supply was tight. Buyers are much more discriminating than they were at the height of the housing bubble in the middle of the last decade, he said.
The economy is another factor limiting prices.
Even with improvements in job growth over recent months, it's difficult for new graduates to land positions that pay well, holding back new household formation, said Andy Bauer, senior regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's Baltimore office. And some homeowners who would otherwise sell and buy a bigger place are staying put because they see no significant pay increases on the horizon, he said.
But inventory is so low — here and nationally — that developers are readying themselves by buying land for future home construction, Bauer said.
"Things have stabilized," he said. "We're starting to get on a sustained upward trend. It's a question of, when do things pick up more quickly?"
He believes it won't be immediate for the Baltimore region, not with furloughs of federal workers and other government budget cuts due to ripple through the area this year.
"That stronger turnaround, I think, is just going to be pushed out because of recent developments," Bauer said.
Home sales in the Baltimore region are higher than April levels for all but one of the past five years. However, the roughly 2,300 homes sold falls short of figures for that month in every other year since the late 1990s, when Metropolitan Regional Information Systems began tracking the region.
For now, at least, the pace is picking up. The pipeline of pending deals — contracts signed in April — rose 22 percent from a year earlier, RBI said. That is by far the biggest increase this year.