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Originally published May 5, 2011 at 11:19 AM | Page modified May 5, 2011 at 8:59 PM

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King County homes prices, sales in April slip from year ago

Buyers closed on 1,533 houses in King County last month, 6.6 percent fewer than in April 2010, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service said. Last month's median sale price, $349,950, was down 6.7 percent from April 2010's $375,000.

Seattle Times business reporter

quotes King County: My taxes better go down. Read more
quotes Wow, what a shocker. In other news, the sky is blue and water is wet. Read more
quotes am pretty sure taxes are a rolling average of the PRIOR 3 years assessed value, so they... Read more

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How did King County's real-estate market perform in April?

That depends on where you look — and whom you ask.

Countywide, the number of houses sold and the median price they fetched both fell nearly 7 percent from April 2010's figures, according to statistics released Thursday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

Last month's median sale price was $349,950, down from $375,000 for the same month last year.

Realtors and other market observers attributed the drop in large part to a continuing surge in sales of lower-priced, bank-owned homes and "short sales" for less than buyers owe lenders.

But the story wasn't the same in every corner of the county:

• Southwest and Southeast King County were among the areas that saw the biggest year-over-year drops in median single-family home prices, with both recording double-digit declines.

Not coincidentally, short sales and repossessed houses accounted for about half the total sales in those areas, according to a Windermere Real Estate analysis.

• On the Eastside, in contrast, where financially distressed houses accounted for just 25 percent of April sales, the median price was only 0.2 percent lower than a year ago.

• In Seattle, where distressed properties also accounted for about one-quarter of total sales, the median price drop was a hair higher than the countywide average.

But the total number of houses for sale countywide, down compared with a year ago, has fallen most steeply in the city.

And the neighborhoods with the biggest drops in supply — Queen Anne, Magnolia, Ballard, Green Lake — saw either price increases or smaller price declines in April.

All these variations prompted brokers to proclaim Seattle and the Eastside healthy markets — especially when you consider the year-over-year comparisons are with a month in 2010 when sales were juiced by buyers rushing to qualify for now-expired federal tax credits.

"Comparing ourselves to a year ago really isn't fair," said Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate. "That was a stimulus-driven market," referring to the federal tax credit that expired last summer.

Shrinking inventory will help stabilize prices, he predicted.

Less optimistic

But other observers said Scott and other brokers were straining to find good news in the listing service's numbers.

"The statistics don't really mesh with the optimism," said Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University.

April's median-price decline suggests that, despite fewer listings, "we still have an oversupply, especially in the higher price ranges," he said. "I think we've still got some challenges ahead of us."

Prices won't start increasing until short sales and foreclosures tail off, said Matthew Gardner, a Seattle land-use economist.

"Even with less choice [reduced inventory], we've still got to get through this overhang before we'll really see a change," he said.

Distressed homes accounted for 35 percent of all King County sales in April, according to Windermere, up from 21 percent in April 2010.

More are in the pipeline.

Bank-repossessed houses and short sales make up 43 percent of all active listings in Southeast and Southwest King County, Windermere said.

But they account for just 22 percent of Seattle's and 17 percent of the Eastside's listings. Those areas, closest to jobs centers, are starting to bounce back, according to Scott and Mike Skahen, owner of Lake & Co. Real Estate in North Seattle.

Homeowners — especially those who are "underwater" on their mortgages — aren't putting their houses up for sale unless they absolutely must, Skahen said. With fewer listings to choose from, some Seattle properties are attracting multiple offers, he added.

"People are starting to see the bottom," he said.

But Skahen acknowledged the bidding wars are mostly over homes priced below $500,000.

And WSU's Crellin said big drops in asking prices — reductions to compete with distressed properties — probably spurred many of those offers.

The number of sales dropped from last year despite prices that have returned to 2005 levels and record-low mortgage-interest rates.

But Crellin said a recent decline back to below 5 percent may actually have prompted some prospective buyers to hold off.

Not in rush

They were more interested in buying when rates started inching up a couple months ago, he said. Now, "they feel less urgency."

Condo sales in King County fell 20 percent in April compared with the same month last year, according to the listing service.

The median price, $224,500, was down nearly 8 percent.

But the median condo price in Seattle actually rose 1.8 percent, from $275,000 to $280,000.

In Snohomish County, single-family home sales and prices both dropped more steeply than in King County in April.

The number of closed sales was down 21 percent year-over-year, while the median price, $232,546, dropped nearly 17 percent.

"Clearly the Snohomish County market is being rocked more than most," Crellin said.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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