Regional home sales up, but still lag

This home on Wrenfield Way in Harleysville, Montgomery County, sold for $710,000 in the second quarter, an example of an increase in higher-end sales.
This home on Wrenfield Way in Harleysville, Montgomery County, sold for $710,000 in the second quarter, an example of an increase in higher-end sales. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 18, 2014

The real estate market in the eight-county Philadelphia region thawed its way out of a disappointing winter and into a sunnier spring in 2014's second quarter, but sales still lagged the same period of a more hopeful 2013.

Using data from the Trend Multiple Listing Service, the Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach HomExpert Market Report shows second-quarter sales regionwide running 6.6 percent below the same period in 2013 - 14,795 vs. 15,844.

Year over year, prices were basically flat, the report indicates, with the average price just 0.3 percent higher than in March to June 2013 - $264,842 compared with $264,000.

Median price - half the homes sold for more, half for less - was just 0.5 percent higher, $221,000 in this year's second quarter vs. $220,000 last year.

Joseph Scott McArdle, a BHHS Fox & Roach agent who focuses on the Chester County market, said the second quarter was "filled with 'make up for lost time.' "

"When the weather finally cooperated, [buyers] seemed to come out in droves," McArdle said. Among the things he noticed during the second quarter was that "for the first time in seven years, buyers no longer have the fear of continued falling prices."

Apparently reflecting a more realistic approach by sellers, asking price improved vs. sale price in the second quarter. On average, the data show, sale price was 92 percent to 97 percent of asking price, depending on the number of homes on the market and traditional factors such as location and school district.

The second quarter's for-sale inventory, 42,014 houses, was about 600 fewer than in the same period last year, the data show - well below normal numbers for the peak spring selling season.

But continuing short supply - which local agents called a major stumbling block to the market's recovery - resulted in dramatically quicker sales. Average days on market were down 34.5 percent, to 76 days this year from 116 in 2013's second quarter.

Valerie LaBarr of Audubon, Camden County, experienced every seller's dream: She sold her 1,450-square-foot, three-bedroom/one-bath house in just one day.

Recently retired from Campbell Soup Co. and looking to move south with her husband, LaBarr spent all winter preparing for the sale and listened to the advice of her Realtor, Nancy Kowalik of Keller Williams, to list in early May and have an open house the same day. About 40 people attended.

"The open house went off without a hitch," LaBarr said. "It sold that day. There was a bidding war between three people, and no one was below the asking price [$175,000]."

Jane and Stuart Siegal, who work in sales and aren't ready to retire, bought a 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom condo in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County, in June.

They sold their 2,700-square-foot house in Bala Cynwyd, also in Montco, just days later at a profit. (They declined to disclose the price they paid or the price they received.)

"I knew it was a strong market, that we could get in and out. It would be to our benefit to do it" in June, Jane Siegal said. Seller's broker Lisa Liacouras, of BHHS Fox & Roach, "advised we try and sell before everyone left for the Shore."

Meanwhile, buyer's broker Jodi Dimitruk, of BHHS Fox & Roach in Center City, found their condo. It had enough space to accommodate their daughter when she visits from college.

"Plus, I was educated," Jane Siegal said. "I knew our house had to be ready for us to move this year. When I saw the Bryn Mawr place, it was the right space for the right price, and we pulled the trigger."

Because real estate trends can be particular down to the very block, every town and city neighborhood is having its own experience these days.

"The recovery, such as it is, remains a highly local phenomenon," said economist Kevin C. Gillen, senior research consultant at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government who tracks the area housing market.

"Some segments are racing forward at breakneck speed, while others have been stuck in neutral for several years," Gillen said. "Until price appreciation and sales activity become more geographically and demographically widespread, we cannot claim the region's housing market is in full recovery."

In the second quarter, sales fell in every county but Camden (up 0.6 percent) and Gloucester (up a more solid 4.3 percent), the data show.

Keller Williams Real Estate agent David Marcantuno, who sells in Swedesboro and Logan and Woolwich Townships in Gloucester County, said that market "is moving forward from 2013 to 2014 - meaning that sales and prices do go up, but they are changing minutely."

Burlington County sales were down almost 7 percent, with flat prices.

In the Pennsylvania suburbs, Chester County sales volume was 13.2 percent lower and prices rose 1.1 percent, with listings spending fewer days on the market, the data show. Sales in Bucks and Montgomery Counties were down about 7 percent each, and average prices were basically flat. Delaware County sales were nearly 5 percent lower; prices fell about 7 percent year over year.

Coldwell Banker Hearthside agent Martin Millner tracks sales in 20 markets in Bucks County. Some neighborhoods have more inventory than last year, he said: "Market conditions have shifted again, and are more favorable to buyers."

At the moment, however, "it seems that there just aren't as many active buyers," Millner said.

Scott Troxel, manager of Weichert Realtors' Collegeville office, said the average sale-price increases of 25 percent year-over-year in the first quarter for his area of Montgomery and Chester Counties settled down to 2 percent by the end of the second quarter.

The battle goes on from "contract to closing," Troxel said, with the numbers for closed sales lagging behind pending sales. He attributed that to mortgage-lender requirements, municipal regulations, and, "yes, there are still a number of short sale and distressed properties to be depleted for the inventory."

In the city, second-quarter sales were down 7.5 percent, while the average price rose 5.7 percent, the HomExpert Market Report data show.

Sales volume in Northeast Philadelphia was down; that was also the case in Center City and Northwest Philadelphia zip codes. Average prices rose in the Northeast and Northwest; Center City prices were flat.

Christopher J. Artur, of Artur Realty in Mayfair, said that after the winter the Northeast had nowhere to go but up. Still, activity is below 2013 levels.

Prices also fell, Artur said, attributing that to "investors being out in strong force. Cash is king."

Carol McCann, of Re/Max Millennium in Somerton, has seen more investors too, but she said first-time buyers benefiting from loosened mortgage rules and incentive programs turned out.

"I've had at least 10 people who have come to me to rent a home, and I was able to get them qualified to purchase with little money down," she said.

It's roughly midway through 2014's third quarter now. In and around Center City, Keller Williams agent Mickey Pascarella said, he's seeing "a hyper-local market that, in neighborhoods such as Passyunk Square, pricing on nicely conditioned two-story rowhomes has climbed from the low to mid-$200,000s last year, to the high $200,000s."

One recent South Philadelphia sale exceeded $340,000 "for a rehab with a finished basement on Pierce Street, around the corner from Marra's Italian [restaurant]," Pascarella said.

"Who knew regional real estate trends could be driven so by chewy-gooey pizza?"

215-854-2472 @alheavens

Inquirer staff writer Erin Arvedund and Lauren Mennen of contributed to this article.

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