Home sales up 27.7% in March

Seventh straight increase in county buoyed by tax credit

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Clark County home sales increased by 27.7 percent in March compared with the same period last year, adding to several months of good news for the housing market.

March was the seventh month in a row that home sales topped the previous year, as buyers responded to lower prices, favorable mortgage rates and the impending deadline for a federal home-buyer’s tax credit.

There were 503 new and pre-owned homes sold here in March, up from 356 home sales in February and from 394 units sold in March 2009, according to Riley & Marks Inc. in Vancouver, which released its ‘benchmarks” report Monday.

The positive home sales report comes as the home-building industry saw more activity in March. For the month, the county issued 105 permits to build single-family houses, up 400 percent from 21 permits handed out a year earlier.

Local real estate experts attribute much of the recent boost in sales to the tax credit.

To get the 2010 federal tax credit — an $8,000 write-off for first-time buyers and $6,500 for move-up homeowners who sell a primary residence — an agreement must be signed by April 30 and close by June 30.

“The rule is, you have to be in contract by the end of April. That’s a fairly straightforward thing,” said Scott Mikel, broker and owner of Vancouver-based Scott Mikel & Associates Realtors.

In turn, some expect the end of the tax incentive to usher in a dramatic slowdown in home sales. Others predict home prices will continue to soften as sellers feel increasing pressure to acknowledge lost equity from gains that were made before the housing market started to falter in late 2007.

“There’s not a person on the planet who can say their house has gained equity,” Mikel said.

Buyer’s market

The “buyer’s market” in Clark County could last another 18 months or longer, said Dick Riley, an appraiser and co-owner and founder of Riley & Marks. He said the situation, which gives purchasers the upper hand in price negotiations, typically lasts three or four months.

“But in this present marketplace, it could take three or four months just to stabilize,” said Riley, who has worked as a local appraiser for more than 35 years.

Local home values in March fell 6.3 percent to a median price of $210,000 for all new and existing homes sold, according to “benchmarks.” The report counts every home sale recorded through the Clark County Courthouse, including for-sale-by-owner transactions.

Riley expects home sales to languish when the tax credit ends.

“That could finally create the bottom and the full stabilization process,” he said.

Despite the industry’s somewhat challenging outlook, state and national real estate lobbying groups have not asked for an extension of the federal tax credit, which in November was extended by Congress from its initial deadline of Dec. 1, 2009.

The National Association of Realtors is saying they think it (the tax credit) has done what it was supposed to do and they’re not going to pursue it,” said Bill Riley, president of the Washington Association of Realtors, which represents more than 20,000 Realtors across the state, including about 1,400 in Clark County.

Home builders don’t plan to lobby for a tax-credit extension, either, said Mike Bomar, political affairs director for the Clark County Building Industry Association.

“It’s not something we can expect to go on forever; it’s just a matter of when is it an appropriate time for it to expire,” Bomar said.

Cami Joner covers real estate. Reach her at 360-735-4532 or cami.joner@columbian.com.