July home sales best in Clark County since 2005

Median price also up; high-end housing market still feels pinch

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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If you're looking for a lower-priced home in Clark County this summer, join the crowd in a resurgent real estate market.

And if you're looking for a luxury home in the country, on a hilltop or near the river, you probably won't face a bidding war.

Those market distinctions are lost in the new market report by RMLS, the Portland-based real estate listing service, which presents an overall positive midsummer portrait of Clark County's housing market. Overall, home sales in July were the highest for that month since 2005, the RMLS reported.

Last month's 681 completed sales in July represented a one-month increase of 22 percent, and a 39 percent leap from last July's accounting of 489 closed sales, RMLS said. In July 2005, near the peak of Clark County's prerecession home construction frenzy, there were 917 closed sales of new and used homes.

The report contained other strong indicators that the overall market now definitely favors sellers over buyers. The median sales price in July was $221,000, up almost 19 percent from last year's median in July of $186,000.

And homes for sale remained in short supply — the inventory of houses for sale was enough to supply demand for 3.5 months, a continuation of a shrinkage in inventory that extends back to January.

Yet local real estate brokers say the averages don't provide a full picture of a fast-changing market where lower-priced housing is hot and the high-end market is still looking for its footing.

Lower-priced homes — from about $150,000 to $300,000 — are in high demand as first-time buyers and restless homeowners jump into a market with a shortage of homes for sale.

"Starting in about January or February business started to pick up, and it has continued," said Dennis Short, a broker for Windermere Real Estate/Stellar Group in Vancouver who specializes in lower-priced homes.

"One thing that's generating higher prices is lack of properties on the market," Short said.

In downtown Vancouver, demand for well-maintained older houses is far greater than supply, said Brandee LaPointe of LaPointe Properties/Premiere Property Group. LaPointe and her husband, Ryan LaPointe, sell downtown homes and also buy and renovate older homes for resale.

"There's a really low inventory, and it's just driving prices up like crazy," Brandee LaPointe said. But she feels that prices may now be peaking.

"I think prices are going to stay stable, especially with our economy in Vancouver," she said.

Theresa Springer, Vancouver-based senior loan officer for Willamette Valley Bank, said she thinks prices will continue to rise for a while in what she describes as a strong seller's market.

But Springer said rising interest rates — conforming loan rates have climbed more than one percentage point this year, to the mid-4 percent range — is forcing some would-be buyers with low incomes out of the market. She expects more rises in interest rates next year that will further reduce options for many homebuyers.

The county's high-end price range market is still unsettled, with prices only recently stabilizing and many would-be buyers still on the sidelines, said Linda Horowitz, a broker for Windermere Real Estate/Stellar Group specializing in high-end housing.

"I've been in the business for almost 20 years, and it's a brand new market we haven't seen," said Horowitz, co-chair of a group of luxury home sellers.

She and other brokers are trying to figure out the reasons for a sudden stagnation in buyer interest in recent weeks.

"I don't know if it's that people are on vacation, or if it's that interest rates are creeping up," she said. "I have a couple of properties in the $300,000 range, and even that seems to be getting a little quieter."

Most high-end buyers she sees are coming from outside the area — recent examples are a Portland retiree and an exile from Beverly Hills, Calif. — and they're willing to pay cash or 50 percent down on the homes rather than have to deal with banks, she said.

The RMLS report noted 895 new listings in July, a slight drop from the June figure of 978 new listings. The 5,798 new listings this year rose 23 percent from the 4,715 entered in the first seven months of 2012.

Pending sales, accepted offers, and closed sales all were up by more than 20 percent from one year ago, according to the report.