Tuesday, March 8, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Agents see signs the market is gaining traction

LEXINGTON — Judy Moore’s office phone rings with increasing frequency these days, filling her calendar at the real estate firm, The Higgins Group Realtors, with client meetings, home prep sessions, and weekend open houses.

Her schedule is nowhere near as crazy as it was in 2005, when the local housing market peaked, or even 2007, just before the recession hit. But it’s busier than it has been in a long time. Moore has sold at least three properties since mid-December, and recently had four offers on one house listed for more than $900,000. With five other listings in Lexington and Bedford, Moore spent Presidents’ Day weekend showing homes to several families.

“I think it’s a new year,’’ she said. “We’ve got bidding wars going on [even though] it’s a little more restrained.’’

Heading into the crucial spring selling season, Moore, a real estate agent since the mid-1980s, said she is feeling as optimistic as she has in years. She’s not expecting a gold rush; buyers are still moving cautiously, she said, stretching out searches for months as they attempt to find a home not only with all the amenities, but also at a bargain price.

Still, she said, she senses that more buyers might be ready to make a move, spurred by worries that an improving economy could lead to a rebound in prices and mortgage rates. This month, she had a buyer who purchased a house after seeing it just once.

“It’s going to be a slow improvement,’’ Moore conceded. But “what I’m hearing from buyers is they don’t want to wait too long because they don’t want to pay higher prices.’’

Buyers, it appears, haven’t given up their bargain hunting yet.

Massachusetts single-family home sales jumped 13 percent last month compared to January 2010 as prices fell. The median sales price of single-family homes has declined in each of the past two months, compared to a year earlier, according to Massachusetts Association of Realtors. In January, it slid just over 5 percent to $284,500.

Economists, meanwhile, caution against expecting a speedy recovery.

The housing market, many note, has only improved slightly since bottoming out in 2009, and sales and price data are so mixed that predictions are hard to make.

“I think we’re in this long painful doldrums,’’ said Harvard University economics professor Edward L. Glaeser. “We should expect to remain there.’’

Still, area real estate agents say there are reasons to feel better about prospects for the spring.

In addition to more inquiries from buyers, realtors said they are getting more listings, a sign that sellers might sense increasing demand to help them get their price.

Laurie Cadigan, president of the Realtors group, said an improving economy could provide the lift as buyers worry less about losing jobs.

The unemployment rate, 8.2 percent in December, is more than a percentage point lower than a year ago, while first-time claims for jobless benefits were down 5 percent in January from a year earlier, according to the US Labor Department.

“Buyers are feeling solid about their own finances,’’ Cadigan said. “If they were thinking about buying, they’re actually jumping in to seriously look.’’

Moore said she expects to be doing at least three or four open houses a weekend by the end of this month. She spent last Sunday showing several clients around two houses at a 14-lot subdivision where new homes are priced around $1.5 million.

At least one group of clients was back for another look, a sign that they were considering making an offer, Moore said.

Moore also knows to temper her expectations — especially after the past few years. She said she’s not hoping for a boom but a rather steady improvement that will lead to a more normal market.

And with her calendar steadily filling with meetings, Moore said, it looks like things are headed that way.

“I’ve had many more appointments in the last couple of weeks [and] the phone is ringing,’’ she said. “All of that points to a very active spring.’’

Erin Ailwort Boston Globe February 27, 011

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