Sonoma County home sales increased 17 percent in March and real estate agents placed the most new listings on the market in 20 months.
To real estate brokers, the increase signaled the county’s battered housing market has progressed to the place where more sellers believe that conditions have improved from a year ago, when prices were down 50 percent from their 2005 peak.
“When you don’t know what’s going on and there’s no stability, the natural reaction is do nothing,” said Rick Laws, a manager at Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.
Laws, who compiles data for The Press Democrat’s monthly housing report, said the large number of new listings suggest that potential sellers are concluding that “this is probably as good as it’s going to get.”
The county recorded the sale of 354 single-family homes in March, up from slightly more than 300 in February.
New listings jumped 38 percent from February to 745 homes. It was the largest number of new listings since August 2008.
Meanwhile, the median price for March remained nearly unchanged at $349,000. The median is the point at which half the homes sold for more and half for less.
Home prices peaked in August 2005 when the median hit a record $619,000. Prices then tumbled, sending the median to a low of $305,000 in February 2009. Since last summer, the median price has hovered between about $350,000 and $390,000.
The March data comes amid ongoing concern for homeowners and the housing market.
One out of every 15 home mortgages in the county was 90 or more days delinquent in February. That number has risen steadily over the past year.
And on the national scene, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke last week noted that the number of home foreclosures keeps rising. Bernanke said he saw no evidence of a sustained recovery in the housing market.
Even so, real estate brokers said the increase in new listings shows that potential sellers have a different attitude about the market.
“It’s certainly a sign that they are not hunkering down like they were two years ago,” said Stephen Liebling, manager of Coldwell Banker in Sebastopol.
Potential buyers, meanwhile, also seem to have concluded that prices have bottomed out and that there is a real chance of interest rates rising in the coming months, the brokers said.
John Duran, a broker with Frank Howard Allen in Santa Rosa, said some clients tell him “I don’t think prices are going to drop so I better get in before the rates go up.”
The county ended March with 1,419 single-family homes in inventory, nearly unchanged from February.
In March 546 single-family homes came under contract in the county, a 46 percent jump over February.
“We haven’t seen that many properties go under contract for over two years,” said Laws.
These pending sales normally take a month or more before they are reported as sold. And the transactions include short sales, where the owner seeks to dispose of the property for less than the amount of the mortgage. Many short-sale contracts eventually fall through because the lender refuses to accept the terms, including the resulting loss on investment.
Even so, Laws noted a close correlation for the last year between the number of new listings and the number of sales agreements made every month.
“As soon as we get some inventory, very quickly it goes under contract,” Laws said.
As a result, many first-time homebuyers have complained the available homes draw strong competition, including from investors.
— Robert Digitale