Open houses begin drawing buyers who seem serious

At a Villanova house listed for $1.5 million, real estate agent Jim Hocker takes down signs after an open house. The eight-bedroom house on five acres was drawing interest from local buyers and those relocating, he said.
At a Villanova house listed for $1.5 million, real estate agent Jim Hocker takes down signs after an open house. The eight-bedroom house on five acres was drawing interest from local buyers and those relocating, he said. (ELIZABETH ROBERSTON / Staff)
Posted: September 11, 2012

Queen Village real estate agent Patrick Conway struggled to strike a balance between talking about the state of the housing market and keeping track of prospective buyers at an hour-long open house in the 700 block of South Philip Street.

"This is the first year in the 17 I've been selling real estate that I didn't have time to take a summer vacation," said Conway, of Prudential Fox & Roach - quickly adding that it was a good thing.

In five hours of checking out open houses Sunday in the narrow alleys of Center City, the cul-de-sacs of South Jersey housing developments, and the country lanes of the Main Line, the story was the same - buyers were out in force, and this time, they seemed to be serious.

"Buyers are indeed back in the market," Conway said, watching as a couple used a tape measure to size up the living room of the three-bedroom, 21/2-bath townhouse, listed for $574,900, and greeting others at the door.

On the first Sunday afternoon of real estate's traditional second selling season - from right after Labor Day to Thanksgiving week - buyer interest appeared to be greater than since the housing boom went bust in 2006-07.

The fall-like weather appeared to add to the open-house attendance. The Eagles were not an issue before 1 p.m., with Main Line real-estate agent Jim Hocker explaining that "wives will come and bring their husbands later."

Agents in the city and suburbs appear more enthusiastic about the real estate market than they have in the last few years.

They say interest in buying houses is way up, but not prices, which finally seemed to have stabilized after a few years of steep declines.

But prices are starting to recover, said economist Kevin Gillen, vice president of Econsult Inc. of Philadelphia. Mortgage interest rates remain near historic lows and can only go up.

"Buyers I've seen in the last six to eight months are much more serious," said Nancy Pearl, an agent with Prudential Fox & Roach who was overseeing an open house in Cherry Hill's Short Hills development for her colleague Anne Koons.

"They're coming to open houses with agents, and they've already talked to a mortgage broker about the amount they'll be approved for," she said.

The house, a six-bedroom, 41/2-bath single on Manor House Drive, is listed for $774,900.

"They do their homework, too," she said. "Younger buyers especially are looking at as many as 30 houses and spend hours online. When I bought my first house 23 years ago, I saw five and I was happy."

Jarrid Bernhardt, 38, had stopped in to look at the Queen Village townhouse with a friend.

Bernhardt, an emergency room physician at Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Stratford, N.J., was at the open house for his parents, "who also want to move to the city from Jersey," he said.

He had just bought a house on Front Street near Second Street for $645,000 that goes to settlement Oct. 25.

"The low interest rate was a big draw," said Bernhardt, who has locked in at 2.75 percent - the average that Freddie Mac quoted on Thursday was 3.55 percent.

"This is a good place for people ages 30 to 40," he said.

Alex Mersky, 40, who manages Born Yesterday, the children's apparel store in Center City his family founded, grew up in Philadelphia and felt comfortable buying a house in Southwest Center City in 2005 that he's shared with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

"We've been looking for about a year and a half but are now getting serious about it because we want to have another child soon so there won't be a big age difference between the two," Mersky said in an interview Friday.

Mersky is looking around Albert Greenfield and Meredith Schools.

"It kind of limits our scope and puts us in the $600,000 range, which is highly competitive," he said. "But the lower interest rates make it easier for us to dream a little more, to be able to get more house than we could otherwise."

Conway and Pearl said prices appeared to have leveled off and, combined with low interest rates - and the fear that they will rise - had boosted the number of buyers.

"Despite the sluggish economy and its uncertain outlook, I think there is no better time to buy a home or condo than right now, whether as your residence or an investment," Gillen said in an interview Friday, adding "it's been about eight years since I've been able to honestly say that."

"Although inventories are coming down, they still remain well above their historic average, so there is plenty of supply to choose from," he said.

Sellers "realize that property values are not the same as they were in 2005," and are adjusting expectations accordingly, said Kathleen Hartnett, an agent with Duffy Real Estate on the Main Line who was overseeing a Sunday open house with her husband, Jim Hocker, on Eagle Farm Road in Villanova.

The eight-bedroom, seven-bath single in Villanova, on a 5.01-acre lot, is listed for $1.5 million. It was drawing enough interest that Hartnett and Hocker said they would stay past the 4 p.m. end of the open house to accommodate every visitor.

Interest has been wide since the house went on the market four weeks ago, with local potential buyers as well as those planning to move to the area, Hocker said.

"In recent years, relos were renting first, unsure of where price might go," he said. "That has changed."

If sellers are realistic, as Hartnett is seeing, then snagging buyers can be easier.

Interest rates and stable prices equal affordability, and that's the equation sending Mary Kate McKinlay into the market.

McKinlay, 25, a 2009 Cabrini College graduate who works for an Audubon company that manages clinical trials, spent Friday looking for her first house, primarily for about $140,000 and in Delaware County "to be close to friends and family."

"I've been living with my parents in Springfield since graduation, and they are really great, but I really need to have a place of my own," she said.

McKinlay considered renting, but "now is the time to buy, with interest rates low and prices are a little bit better."

Finding exactly what she wants isn't easy, she said.

"As long as kitchen and bathroom don't turn me off, then it has got a chance," McKinlay said.


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow @alheavens at Twitter.

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