Northeast home sales post 13 pct. annual increase

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press Writer / March 23, 2010

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BOSTON—Home sales in the Northeast rose in February as the economy showed signs of recovery, inspiring buyers.

The National Association of Realtors also said Tuesday that Northeast sales were 13 percent higher on a year-over-year basis, the biggest improvement in any of the four U.S. regions.

Nationwide, homes sales were up 8 percent from February a year ago, without adjusting for seasonal factors.

The improved sales activity in the region helped drive up prices. The median sales price of $254,700 for an existing home was almost 8 percent higher than February 2009, making the Northeast the sole region to show a price increase from last year.

The national median sales price of $165,100 was down almost 2 percent.

Timothy Warren, chief executive of The Warren Group, a Boston-based independent provider of real estate data, saw signs of pent-up demand among those who had postponed entering the real estate market for economic reasons.

"All of these people who have three kids in a two-bedroom apartment are saying, 'We're sick of this, let's go,'" said Warren.

Home sales among the nine major Northeast cities tracked by the Associated Press-Re/Max Monthly Housing Report were mixed. A few markets losing ground from a year ago, while others had double-digit gains. The report, also released Tuesday, analyzed sales transactions in the metropolitan statistical areas filed by all real estate agents, regardless of company affiliation.

Most realtors continued to see more action in the lower price ranges, driven in part by the extension to April 30 of the first-time homebuyers tax credit.

"The buyers who are out there seriously trying to buy, especially in the starting price ranges, are running into multiple offers and losing properties to (those) offers," said Brent Bell, a certified residential specialist with Re/Max Premier Realtors of West Hartford, Conn.

For higher-end properties, those above $400,000 in his area, it remained very much a buyer's market, said Bell.

Realtors regionwide reported a drop in the number of property listings compared to a year ago, and the average number of days a home stayed on the market declined or remained stable in all Northeast cities.

Among the highlights from the region:

--Biggest sales gains: Sales in the New York City suburbs climbed 29 percent from a year ago, the second consecutive month of strong growth in that market.

Miriam Bernstein, an agent with Re/Max Prime Properties in Scarsdale, N.Y., saw evidence of growing demand in the pricey New York suburban market, coupled with an occasional lack of supply.

"A tremendous number of buyers are out there ready to buy, but I don't think we have enough houses for what they're looking for," she said.

Buyers may be less skittish about the economy than they were a year ago, Bernstein said, noting that she just came through a bidding war for an Eastchester, N.Y., home priced in the mid-$600,000 range that was shown to 19 interested parties on the first day it went on the market.

--Biggest sales declines: Sales in Trenton, N.J., fell 14 percent, while Hartford, Conn., was down nearly 9 percent and Philadelphia off 6 percent.

Realtors were split on the impact of the historic winter storms that buried the mid-Atlantic states, particularly Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while leaving northern New England relatively unscathed.

"It was an upside down month," said Daniel Magee, team leader at Keller Williams Realty in southern New Jersey. "I think a lot of (potential buyers) did not get out, not only was it the snow, but a lot of snow on weekends, some of your prime time for open houses and things like that."

But Magee also cautioned against making the weather a "convenient excuse."

Sellers whose homes have been on the market for months may also be starting to lose patience and showing more flexibility.

Agents need to have a "hard conversation" with sellers whose properties have been on the market for six months or more, Magee said.

"You are starting to see some reality settling in with a lot of the sellers," he said. "You're seeing price reductions of $15-$20,000."

--Biggest price increases: The median sales price of $110,250 in Pittsburgh was 9 percent higher than February 2009, the largest jump in the region behind the small Burlington, Vt., market, where the median sales price of $218,000 rose nearly 12 percent.

--Biggest price decline: The only city with a significant price slide was again Trenton, N.J., where the median sales price of $205,000 was off 11 percent from a year ago.