BOSTON — Home sales in the Northeast tumbled from December to January, but were still 17 percent above year-ago levels, the National Association of Realtors said Friday.
The median sales price in the nine-state region was $245,300, up nearly 9 percent from January 2009.
The Northeast suffered a bigger decline from December than the nation as whole, but yearly comparisons looked stronger. Nationwide, home sales were up 7 percent from January last year, without adjusting for seasonal factors.
Nicholas Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, sees signs the Northeast housing market has bottomed out, though the future remains uncertain.
“The more likely prospect is a stabilized housing market … but not necessarily a recovering housing market,” Retsinas said, adding that the government intervention that has helped prop up the flagging market cannot be sustained long term.
Sales in most of the nine major Northeast cities tracked by the Associated Press-Re/Max Monthly Housing Report were sharply lower compared to the month of December, yet improved when compared with January 2009. The report, also released Friday, analyzed sales transactions in the metropolitan statistical areas recorded by all real estate agents, regardless of company affiliation.
Among the highlights from the region:
- Biggest sales gains: Sales in the New York City suburbs climbed 39 percent from a year ago, while gains were also seen in Trenton, N.J., (29 percent), Providence, R.I. (27), Hartford, Conn., (25 percent) and Burlington, Vt., (40 percent).
“I think we’re getting back to the real reason while people always bought homes, to have a nice place to live, to have a nice lifestyle,” said Kevin O’Shea, a partner at Homes of Westchester, in White Plains, N.Y.
O’Shea said there had been more recent activity in the sub-$500,000 range, driven in part by an extension of the $8,000 first-time homebuyers tax credit. But as more of those homes sold, it created a domino effect that helped the higher end of the market, he said.
- Sales decline: The only city that did not register a year-to-year gain in sales was Pittsburgh, down 1 percent from a year ago.
“When the tax credit got extended last year, I really saw a huge drop, everybody saying ‘OK, I’m not in a hurry anymore,’” said Christa Ross, an agent with Re/Max Select Realty in Cranberry Township, Pa. “Now what we are seeing is that picking up again,” she said.
Stephanie Somers, a Realtor with Re/Max Access in Philadelphia, agreed that the extension of the tax credit from Nov. 30 to April 30 removed some of the urgency among first-time buyers, but they remain a motivated group, and one that no longer sees things “through rose-colored glasses.”
“First-time homebuyers have become smarter — not that they were dumb — but they have become more familiar with the real estate process and they are much more realistic,” she said.
- Biggest price gains: Prices rose in most Northeast cities in January. Pittsburgh had a medium sales price of $112,000, up 15 percent from the same month the previous year. The median sales price in Boston of $325,000 represented a 12 percent increase.
- Biggest price drop: Trenton was an exception to the rule among larger metropolitan areas, with a median sales price of $220,000, down about 6 percent from January 2009.
T. Christopher Hill, a Realtor with Re/Max Tri-County in Hamilton Township, N.J., said his office has seen increases in new listings, homes under contract and completed deals.
But when it comes to prices, he said the market was showing little consistency.
“At the same time this week, I have one buyer [offering] $5,000 over the asking price and we’re not getting it … and in another case we are negotiating an offer in a much higher price range that’s $200,000 under the asking price and we’re probably going to get it,” said Hill.
- Inventory highlight: All regions saw a drop in for-sale listings, led by Boston, where the 15,261 listings were down 19 percent. The average number of days a home spent on the market varied widely, with Trenton seeing a 26 percent decline and Augusta, Maine, a 28 percent increase.
In the Boston area, transactions totaling more than $1 million have been rising steadily in recent months, said Mark Lippolt, senior vice president of operations for Hammond Residential Real Estate LLC.
“As we move further and further away from the height of the crisis, I think the ability to finance some of these higher end transactions has gotten a little bit simpler,” Lippolt said.
Looking ahead to the February numbers, one wild card will be the impact of historic snowstorms that hammered the mid-Atlantic states, particularly Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Most Realtors said that while the storms kept people from looking at homes for a few days, activity recovered quickly.
“We missed two solid weekends,” said Hill, but prospective homeowners were “back out in force,” during the last two weekends of February.
“I had people calling me in the middle of the snowstorms, wanting to see things the next morning,” said Ross.
“I was out with snow shovels, shoveling my way into houses, all sorts of ridiculous stuff,” she laughed.