County home sales decline in September

Most experts say 12.6% drop was just a cyclical shift

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Local homesellers found out in September that Clark County's warming residential real estate market was hit by seasonal cooling.

But most experts say September's 12.6 percent drop in sales from August was just a cyclical shift. If they're wrong, the decline could have implications on an industry just starting to see signs of recovery for construction workers and real estate brokers who generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new and existing home sales.

In September alone, 431 houses changed hands. It helped boost a 4 percent increase in home sales from January through September, compared with the same period last year, although last month's total was down from 493 houses sold in August and down from 441 houses sold in September 2011,

"Last September (2011) was really strong. It was the beginning of this uptick," said Mike Lamb, a broker with Vancouver-based Windermere Real Estate Stellar Group.

A slight, 4.3 percent decline in the median selling price -- half sold for more, half for less -- from $204,900 in August to $195,000 in September could stall progress in the local housing industry as well, although real estate brokers don't foresee a long-term trend.

"There were probably more sales in the low price range than at the higher level," Lamb said.

Another local real estate broker called September's home sales figures "an aberration," when compared with how Clark County home sales have grown month-to-month and year-over-year.

"I'd want a quarter or three months of that before I would draw conclusions from it," said Terry Wollam, a broker with Re/Max Equity Group in Vancouver. "You'll see September was more of a blip on the radar."

Lamb and Wollam both blamed shrinking home sales on a lack of inventory of local houses listed for sale.

"You don't just turn the ship, it takes a while" to build up a supply of for-sale houses, he said.

Wollam expects the smaller pool of houses available to purchase will push prices higher as demand creates multiple offers.

"When there are limited choices, they are more decisive and willing to pay more for a particular house," he said.

The RMLS reported that Clark County's inventory of homes listed for sale declined to a 5.6-month supply in September. That's up from 5.1 months in August, but down 17.6 percent from September 2011. The number means it would take 5.6 months to sell the 2,402 houses listed for sale countywide if no new inventory were added.

The county's inventory would have been lower if not for a significant number of listings for construction of new houses that haven't been built, according to Lamb.

"That's at least 25 percent of the inventory," he said, which Lamb estimated leaves Clark County with less than four months' worth of inventory.

He said the RMLS inventory also does not include short sales -- a transaction in which the homeowner negotiates to sell the home for less than is owed on the mortgage.

He agreed with Wollam that dwindling inventory could continue to drive values higher through next year, although it may not launch a boom of single-family home construction. Free-falling residential land prices have attracted investor buyers that are not yet able to sell at a significant return on investment.

"At current prices, we don't see the ability to create (housing) lots at a value that the market will sustain," Lamb said.