Wilmington Home & Real Estate Sales Are UP!

The government stimulus may be starting to show up in the Wilmington area’s home sales.

Local real estate leaders aren’t ready yet to say that the outlook is sunny, but there may be light at the end of the long, dark housing tunnel.

Sales contracts signed in recent weeks have soared, according to real estate agencies here. And a big factor in that is the government’s $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, Realtors and lenders say.

“We saw a 35 percent increase in contracts in March from February,” said Tim Milam, president of Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Realty. In the past two weeks, the agency’s clients have signed contracts on $36 million worth of homes, he added.

“We’re seeing high volume in contracts for homes at $300,000 and below,” Milam said this week, attributing much of that to first-time buyers. “They are really getting off the fence.”

That final factor has heated up the mortgage business, brokers here say. Not only have they spurred a jump in refinancings, but a big chunk of the business is for purchases as well.

At Alpha Mortgage in Wilmington, the number of loans in March was up more than 90 percent from March 2008 and the dollar amount they represent rose 67.2 percent compared with a year earlier, said broker Chris Hutchens.

“Much of the increase is purchase-related and not just refis,” Hutchens said, adding that he did five purchases Monday out of six loans.

The contracts signed may point to some relief for struggling home builders.

Sea Coast represents several new developments, and Milam says about 20 percent of the latest contracts are for new-construction homes.

All this activity, however, has yet to show up in sales figures, because deals don’t count until they are closed – that is, signed, sealed and delivered and deeds transferred. It’s usually about 45 days from when a person signs a contract to buy a home until he or she gets the keys, Realtors and lenders say.

So, it will be April and May before any uptick in the market here shows up on the record.

Closed home sales here rose in March from the month before, but were still down from March 2008, according to data from the Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors.

Sales rose to 335 in March from 250 in February in the area covered by the WRAR – essentially New Hanover and Pender counties and the northern part of Brunswick. But they were still down from the 409 that closed in March 2008. Contracts for those homes would have been signed in January and February.

The prices of sold houses continued to decline from year-earlier levels, according to the Realtors’ data. The median price of homes sold in March – that is the price at which half of homes sold for more and half for less – was $175,683 compared with $201,000 in March 2008. The average price fell to $218,130 from $236,996.

Prices are on homes closed in March and do not necessarily reflect the general market value of area property.

Though first-time home buyers are big players in the local market, they are not the only force at work.

“One of the gains we’re seeing is a lot more sales in the upper end now,” said Intracoastal’s Wallace. “It was very slow the first couple of months this year,” he said, but now he’s seeing sales of homes from $500,000 to $1.8 million. “It’s not just the starter homes” that are selling.

That said, the inventory of homes for sale is still high. A check of houses for sale this week found more than 140 on the market in Landfall, for instance, though the overall number of listings by all Realtors here has dropped from last year.

Experts see a drop in listings – and by extension, inventory – as a positive sign. The market cannot stabilize until much of that inventory is sold.

Part of that inventory are homes that have been foreclosed on. About 20 percent to 25 percent of Coldwell Banker Sea Coast’s recent activity has been foreclosures, Milam said.

Foreclosures are likely to continue, however, as the recession – which was late to hit here – takes its toll. Area unemployment has risen in one year from about 5 percent to nearly 11 percent.

“Consumer confidence is improving,” however, said Milam. “Rates are low and housing prices have declined about 20 percent in a couple of years.

“I think it’s bottomed out.”

By Wayne Faulkner 
Business Editor
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Published: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 11:34 a.m.   Wilmington Star News

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