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Spring brings renewed life for Capital Region’s housing market

Real Estate YTD/April 2013 for N.H. counties and Concord. Source: New Hampshire Association of REALTORS/Northern New England Real Estate Network.

Real Estate YTD/April 2013 for N.H. counties and Concord. Source: New Hampshire Association of REALTORS/Northern New England Real Estate Network.

Spring has brought signs of renewed life in the Capital Region’s housing market. Sales and median home prices are both up from where they were a year ago. Foreclosures are down. Listings are spending less time on the market than they did just months ago.

“Busy” seems to be the buzz word among real estate agents.

Even more reserved industry watchers have acknowledged growth.

“I hate to say this, because Realtors say it all the time, but I really do think we’re poised for a good year,” said Russ Thibeault, president of Applied Economic Research in Laconia, who has studied the market for 40 years.

April was the 17th straight month that home sales in New Hampshire rose from the same month a year earlier, according to the New Hampshire Association of Realtors. Some 135 homes were sold in Merrimack County alone, a 48.4 percent increase from the 91 homes sold in the county in the same month last year. Of those, 29 were sold in Concord, a 222.2 percent increase from last April, when just nine homes were sold.

First-quarter growth on the whole was more muted but still significant. Between Jan. 1 and Apr. 30, there were 385 homes sold in Merrimack County, a 13.2 percent increase from the same period last year. Of those, 79 were in Concord, up 19.7 percent from the last year.

The bulk of the growth in sales has been in median- to low-priced homes.

Countywide, median home prices spiked last month, too, but for the quarter as a whole they grew only marginally, up $500 from last year. In Concord, that change was more noticeable: a 19.5 percent jump from last spring.

Those are all positive signs that the market is healing, Thibeault said. But they’re not the best.

That would be a sort of liquidation rate, or projected time it would take to get rid of the entire inventory of homes currently on the market, he said. At the height of the recession and housing crisis that rate was 19 months. Now, it’s eight months – a very healthy rate, Thibeault said, the lowest it’s been since 2006.

Three other indicators, Thibeault said: rock-bottom interest rates, an economy no longer hemorrhaging jobs and capital, and fewer overall houses on the market.

That last one matters because less inventory helps move existing listings more quickly, which in turn lures sellers to the market, he said. In 2009, at the peak of the crisis, there were about 2,000 properties on the market countywide; now there are roughly half that number, Thibeault said. The reason, he said: sales have chipped away at older and existing inventory.

There are fewer foreclosed properties on the market, too – a good thing, especially for future home prices, said Stephen DeStefano, a real estate agent with Century 21 in Concord.

“The foreclosures are where the buyers go, because they’re cheaper,” he said. “So the sooner we get the bank-owned homes off the market, the sooner (home) values are going to go up because that option will go away.”

Perspective from the ground

DeStefano and every other agent interviewed for this story reported a busy spring in terms of sales.

“There’s plenty of activity and we’re starting to see prices go up a bit,” DeStefano said. “We’re even getting a few new construction listings, which we haven’t had for a while.”

Teresa Saltsman of RE/MAX Connection said it took just 10 days for her client to find a buyer for the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Noyes Street in Concord, listed for $179,000. That’s fast, Saltsman said, and in her experience that’s not always the case. Some homes go quickly, others fester.

“Sellers really have to be competitive with their listings,” Saltsman said.

Buyers have to be aggressive, too, if not more so.

“So many buyers are getting frustrated because so many houses have multiple offers, which we haven’t seen in a few years,” DeStefano said. “So I think that’s been difficult for some folks, because they don’t want to end up in a bidding war.”

But Mary Skoby Cowan of Cowan and Zellers in Concord said she’s noticed buyers on the whole are more optimistic.

“There’s a boldness on Main Street,” she said. “I think you’re seeing some people go back to work, people working more hours – just a more positive energy in many industries.”

“And more importantly, it feels organic,” she added. “It’s not because of some stimulus package or other factor.”

But Greg McLeod, an agent at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, The Masiello Group, in Concord, was more reticent. Sales are up, he said, but the real bellwether of sustained growth is appreciation in value, and that has yet to make a significant jump.

“Most Realtors will tell you they’re busier than they have been, which is true, but we’re not seeing prices rise,” McLeod said.

Still, McLeod said he was optimistic that the market is healing, and said much of the turn came late last year and early this spring.

Low interest rates have helped, said George Helwig, director of education and counseling at CATCH Neighborhood Housing in Concord, which helps new buyers navigate the home-buying process. By giving them greater purchasing power, they’ve drawn more potential buyers to the market.

“Right now you get a lot more value for the property than you would have (a few years ago),” Helwig said. “For the same amount, someone who could buy a home that in 2006 was priced at $150,000 can now buy a $180,000 home that was previously priced at $200,000.”

But obtaining a mortgage is much more difficult than it was before the recession, Helwig said. Where once a buyer with a credit score in the 570 range (on a scale from 300 to 850) could get approval in 2006, banks are now taking people only in the 650 and up range, he said.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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