By Diana Olick
Strong demand and still limited supply mean homes are now selling nearly three times as fast as they normally would. The average number of days a listing stayed on the market in April was 46, down from 62 in March and down from the normal pace of 90-120 days, according to the National Association of Realtors.
"I have a seller, his house came on, he got a full-price offer, and he refused to take it because he wanted multiples. Really?" asked Jane Fairweather, a real estate agent in Montgomery County Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Fairweather said homes in her market are selling in an average of 23 days because inventories are way down and demand is strong. The number of listings in Montgomery County were down 41 percent in April from 2011. In April of 2011, one third of the listings went under contract. In April of this year, 67 percent went under contract.
"I don't think it's a boom we have to worry about because this is all about low interest rates and low inventory," noted Fairweather. "This is not about easy money. The standards for borrowing are still very tight."
The sales pace is back to what it was during the housing boom in 2005 and 2006, but the circumstances are of course very different. Back then it was all about easy money, and now it's about stiff competition for limited supply. "We need to see home builders increase production," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the NAR, in a press conference. "We need a 50 percent increase in starts."
Home builders are actually slowing production, trying to take advantage of home price gains that are nearing double digits. High-end home builder Toll Brothers, based in Horsham, Pa., reported that it raised prices by $26,000 on average, or about 5 percent, during the second quarter. The average price of a contract signed in the quarter was up sixteen percent from a year ago.
While homes are certainly selling faster, double-digit price gains are not considered healthy, especially when wage growth is nowhere near that. At some point buyers will hit the wall, unable to afford the homes they want. First-time homebuyers are already dropping out of the market, representing just 29 percent of homebuyers in April, according to the NAR. That's the lowest in two years. Rising mortgage rates, now at their highest in two months, are playing a part, but there are also fewer low-end homes to buy. The number of homes in the foreclosure process is now down nearly 25 percent from a year ago, according to a new report from Lender Processing Services.
Just 18 percent of home sales in April were of distressed properties, the lowest since the Realtors began tracking this number in 2008. Compare that to 35 percent about a year and a half ago. Sales of homes priced below $100,000 were down 10 percent in April compared to a year ago, while every other price range saw sales gains. Those who can get credit are now competing for what little there is to buy, and pushing prices well beyond expectations. "I don't see it lasting," added Fairweather. "I think the minute they increase interest rates, you'll see people pull back."
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