County home sales continue to lag

Slowest August in 20 years is dreary news for sellers

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Clark County home sales remained flat in August, bolstering worries that strong sales early this year were artificially inflated by now-expired tax credits.

Buyers closed on only 375 new or existing houses, making this the slowest August in the 20 years that The Columbian has been tracking data. The second-slowest August on record was last year, when 496 homes sold, according to the benchmarks home sales report.

The news is bleak for those eager to sell now, and it could be months or even years before buyers return in significant numbers. But there are glimmers of hope for worried property owners.

Home values appear to be stabilizing. Builders are planning new construction. Foreclosures are also down from their peak, though they remain high, with one of every 325 county households facing foreclosure in July.

Clark County home values peaked in August 2006, when half of all properties sold for more than $271,000. The median sale price gradually fell, reaching a low of $199,590 in November. It has since fluctuated between $205,000 and $217,000 — and was at $216,115 in August.

Industry watchers had expected a decline in the number of houses sold in July and August because of the end of an $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers who signed contracts by April 30 and closed by the end of June. But the drop in home sales from June to July — 48 percent in Clark County, 27 percent nationwide — was steeper than most had anticipated, spurring a stock market sell-off and fueling fears of prolonged recession.

By then, however, home builders already were seeing a rebound. The construction industry felt the post-tax-credit drop early because of the April 30 deadline. Local building permit applications dropped 47 percent from April to May.

By August, buyers had returned, boosting the number of local single-family residential building permits to 523 through August, a 55 percent climb over the first eight months of 2009.

Tamarack Homes, which halted speculative construction in 2007 when demand collapsed, started again in May when it decided to build three properties for the Clark County Parade of Homes in July. Sales were slow during the home show, but picked up soon after, said Tamarack President Ryan Zygar.

September may be busier than August, said Kelly Helmes, vice president of Vancouver-based New Tradition Homes. New Tradition’s sales are still about half of what the company considers normal for this time of year, and a third of the high the company experienced at the peak of the housing bubble.

But as the company markets smaller houses to cost-conscious buyers, Helmes said he is optimistic about the future.