KIRKLAND, WA, January 5, 2010 - "Home for the holidays" took on special meaning for 4,399 buyers whose purchase offers were accepted during December, according to the latest report from Northwest Multiple Listing Service. That volume of pending sales was up more than 35 percent from a year ago and marked the best December since 2006.
Brokers say it's a tough market, but point to several indicators for good activity during this year's first quarter. "The distance seems great, but the direction is a good one," observed NWMLS director Dick Beeson.
"With what our agents already have in the pipeline, I'm optimistic about a positive first quarter," said NWMLS director Meribeth Hutchings, the broker at Windermere RE/Lake Stevens. "We had a very strong December and the momentum seems to be there to keep things moving," she remarked, noting three agents were in the office on New Year's Eve writing offers.
Shrinking inventory, the extension of the first-time home buyer tax credit, and favorable interest rates are among factors brokers believe will sustain activity.
"Affordability has never been better," said Dick Fulton, a past chairman of the NWMLS board of directors whose career spans more than two decades. Fulton, the executive vice president at Coldwell Banker Bain, suggests would-be sellers list their property soon, rather than wait until spring, to take advantage of favorable conditions. With inventory much smaller than a year ago, sellers should benefit from more exposure to a good pool of buyers, he suggests.
Inventory area-wide is down about 15.6 percent from a year ago. At the end of December, brokers reported 32,152 active listings of single family homes and condominiums. For the four-county Puget Sound region, the number of active listings is down more than 18 percent, with Kitsap County reporting the biggest drop at 25.4 percent.
NWMLS members reported 4,711 closed sales during December, up 54.7 percent from the year-ago total of 3,045 when the holiday slowdown was compounded by record low temperatures and snow.
The median price for last month's completed transactions, including single family homes and condominiums, was $265,000. That compares to a year-ago sales price of $285,000 (down about 7 percent). Compared to January, prices are down about 2.9 percent.
For single family homes (excluding condominiums), last month's median sales price was $273,000. Twelve months ago it was $290,000, a difference of about 5.9 percent. Condo prices have dropped about 14.6 percent, from $263,475 to last month's figure of $225,000.
Dick Beeson, owner/broker of Windermere Commencement Assoc. in Tacoma, said the market is "chugging along," despite hurdles associated with the lending market, appraisals and foreclosures. "The hardest part of the process still remains the uncertainty of the lending market as banks continue to ratchet up the qualifications and criteria for borrowers. Appraisals are difficult because even if the value comes in at the purchase price many lenders do a second review of the appraisal and find fault with the outcome, therefore creating a problem for buyers and sellers." He also noted the large volume of foreclosures has driven down prices - something he believes will persist throughout much of this year.
Beeson also said he does not expect much sales action as a result of expanding the tax credit to qualifying repeat buyers because many owners have little or no equity in the homes to use to move up. "First time buyers will still lead the charge in sales," he suggests.
Northwest Multiple Listing Service, owned by its member brokers, is the largest full-service MLS in the Northwest. Its membership includes more than 24,000 brokers and agents. The organization, based in Kirkland, currently serves 21 counties in western and central Washington. Ferry and Clallam counties are now included in the monthly statistical reports.