Housing recovery finally begins in county

New demand, dwindling supply of existing homes among the causes

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 
photoClick to enlarge

Clark County’s long-awaited housing recovery sputtered to life in 2012, spurred by new demand and dwindling supplies of available listings.

Homebuilders and homeowners who saw their homes increase in value were the main beneficiaries of the trend. By October, the selling price of area homes had increased by 19.3 percent from the start of the year. The median sales price (half sold for more, half for less) increased to $198,000 for all Clark County homes sold in October 2012. It was up from a median of $166,000 in January 2012, according to the RMLS, a Portland-based listing service.

Home sales steadily improved through the year, helped along by historically low mortgage interest rates and investors taking advantage of bargain-priced distressed properties released by bank owners. The RMLS reported 487 county homes sold in October, up 13 percent from the previous month and a 22 percent increase over 399 homes sold in October 2011.

“Clark County is definitely on the upswing,” in terms of a housing comeback, said Terry Wollam, a broker with Re/Max Equity Group in Vancouver.

Homebuilding also picked up in 2012, due, in part, to those low mortgage interest rates. The activity translated to an 84 percent year-over-year increase in the county’s October housing starts, as measured by the number of building permits issued for single-family homes. In October alone, builders were issued 61 permits to construct single-family homes in unincorporated Clark County valued at a total of $19.3 million. The figure compared with 33 permits valued at $11.3 million for the same month the previous year.

October 2012 was the ninth consecutive month that showed a year-over-year increase in Clark County housing permits. However, homebuilders remained cautiously optimistic, for the most part refraining from building “on spec,” which means constructing a home without a pre-arranged sale in the belief that a buyer will eventually come along.

Some experts say the building industry’s caution has led to even shorter supplies of existing houses for sale. It will continue to push sales prices and values higher through this year.

Many of the 2102 home sales included bank-owned foreclosures and short sales, in which delinquent borrowers negotiate with their lenders to sell the home for less than the amount owed.

A shrinking stockpile of short sales has further tightened the supply of county houses for sale. The inventory of county listings shrunk to 4.7 months worth in October, meaning it would take 4.7 months to sell all the homes on the market if no new listings were added. Supplies in October were down from 8.8 months worth of inventory in January 2012, and down from 11.7 months worth of listings at the start of 2011.

The number of Clark County homes in foreclosure fell steadily through September, then bumped up again in October, according to California-based RealtyTrac Inc.

Experts predict the roller-coaster pattern could continue as the area’s sluggish job market puts pressure on struggling homeowners. A state law passed in 2011 has also forced mortgage lenders to work with delinquent homeowners. Some suspect the new mediation law is merely slowing down the process, but won’t save homeowners from losing their houses.

“Now, they (lenders) have to go through a process” before foreclosure, said Neal McKeever, a mortgage foreclosure counselor with the nonprofit Community Housing Resource Center in Vancouver