For the first time since the spring of 2006, sales of existing homes in Pitt County have increased in consecutive months. That's not enough to signal a recovery to a bumpy housing market but does provide a glimmer of hope, local real estate agents said.
Sales of existing homes in the Greenville area were up 6 percent in March after a 31 percent gain in February, according to the North Carolina Association of Realtors — the first consecutive increases since May (37 percent) and June (29 percent) in 2006. But sales are down compared to 2007 — 174 units sold in March are 33 percent off the 2007 total of 254.
"Our market is down from where it was a year ago at this time," David French, president of the Greenville Pitt County Association of Realtors said. "It is beginning to respond. I firmly believe that the fuel situation is going to limit our recovery. But activity's picked up, and it should be picking up this time of the year. I don't think we will come anywhere near the numbers that we had last year probably through the second quarter of the year."
An encouraging sign is the average sales price for single-family homes rose about 6 percent in March to $176,208. Including townhomes and condominiums, the sales price dipped less than 1 percent from $145,063 to $144,407 from March a year ago.
"Townhouse prices are actually up this year," Richard Lane, broker-in-charge at Prudential Prime Properties, said. "Condos have been hit the hardest so far. Condos are down slightly in price and number of closings. ... But townhouses and condominiums, at this stage, are a minor player in the market compared to single-family."
Lane said extensive media coverage on problems in subprime lending and foreclosures have created fear and hesitation among potential home buyers. He said investing is still safe but advises buyers to talk with a lender first and borrow conservatively.
"Everything has been doom and gloom, we're going to hell, it's going out of business, the United States is going to cease to exist and all that stuff," Lane said. "Markets go up and down. There's nothing new here. It's up and down just like it's always been.
"If you try to look at any market on a microscopic level, you're going to get off course. You have to look at it on a long-term, broader perspective. If you do that, then you'll make better sense out of what your investment is going to be.
"I think consumers have been a little bit frightened because of the economic news," Lane added. "The fact of the matter is, if you're borrowing conservatively and safely, there is mortgage money readily available and sellers are very motivated right now to sell their homes, whether it's new construction or existing homes. So if you're a motivated seller and you're a motivated buyer, the marketplace is right to jump in. There are opportunities in this marketplace, just like there are in the stock market and other commodities."
Some builders have felt the squeeze and adjusted to a saturated market by scaling back. Bill Clark of Bill Clark Homes in Greenville said the market will need time to shed an oversupply of available homes.
"We don't sell, we don't build," said Clark, who builds and markets homes in Greenville, Fayetteville, New Bern, Havelock, Raleigh, Wilmington and Myrtle Beach S.C. "Everybody doesn't do that, which is unfortunate. As long as this big supply stays on the market, then the market is going to be, as far as from our point view, a weak market for us. But when you flip that around, it's a great time to buy a house because it's a buyer's market."
Clark said last fall he had begun re-examining all areas of operations, comparing costs in each of the markets he builds.
"This is not going to be corrected overnight," Clark said. "We may have hit bottom. But when you hit bottom, it takes you a long time to start going back up. So I think we're going to coast about the same we're doing right now through '08, and in '09 it's going to get a little better, but the next time we are going to see a good market, in my opinion, is going to be 2010."
By Mike Grizzard
The Daily Reflector