Home buyers, sellers feel "looming pressure" but Western Washington market stays strong
KIRKLAND, Washington (March 6, 2018) - Interest rates are creeping up, inventory is still squeezed, and some feared revised tax laws would have a chilling effect on home sales, but Northwest Multiple Listing Service leaders say the local market remains competitive.
"It seemed like there would have been a chilling effect on the real estate market at the start of 2018 with the newly revised tax laws limiting mortgage interest deductions," suggested Gary O'Leyar, designated broker and owner at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Signature Properties. "Not only did the revisions not have a chilling effect, if anything, the local market has been even hotter and more competitive than last year at this time," he added in commenting on new MLS numbers summarizing February activity.
Northwest MLS figures for last month show a slight year-over-year decrease (about 2.8 percent) in overall pending sales, a likely consequence of inventory being down nearly 12.9 percent. Other key indicators of the market - new listings, closed sales, and selling prices - all showed gains in February compared to 12 months ago.
The just-released report from Northwest MLS shows 7,980 pending sales last month, down from the year-ago volume of 8,209 mutually accepted offers for single family homes and condos. Thirteen of the 23 counties in the report had more pending sales than at this time last year.
Closed sales outgained last year's volume, 5,548 to 5,358, for an increase of nearly 3.6 percent. Median prices on those sales surged almost 14.8 percent area-wide, rising from the year ago figure of $335,515 to last month's price of $385,000.
Among the four Puget Sound area counties, Snohomish had the largest year-over-year price increase at 18.8 percent. Its countywide median price for February's sales spiked to $460,000 from $387,250, but that is $130,000 below the $590,000 median price for transactions that closed in King County last month.
For single family homes (excluding condos), prices rose 13.7 percent overall, from $343,000 to $390,000. Within King County, the median price was $649,950, with three areas (Mercer Island, Bellevue west of I-405, and Kirkland-Bridle Trails) reporting median prices of more than $1 million for single family homes.
"As was the case the last two years, home values spiked in February, thanks to a cyclical low point in supply," commented Robert Wasser, owner/broker at Prospera Real Estate. Prices are now back around the peak levels of last summer, and cyclically speaking, are headed for additional increases until summer arrives," commented Wasser, a board member at Northwest MLS.
Brokers added 7,284 new listings of single family homes and condos during February, an improvement of nearly 6.4 percent from a year ago when they added 6,848 new listings. Like many months during 2017, last month's pending sales (7,980) outgained new listings (7,284), keeping inventory depleted in many areas.
There is about 1.4 months of supply area-wide, but both King and Snohomish counties have less than a month's supply. For condos, there is only 0.88 months of supply - and even less than that in King, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties.
Many brokers expect inventory levels to improve. "The arrival of daylight savings triggers a burst in new listings," proclaimed J. Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate. "More listings lead to more sales. In real estate, it's all about the new listing," he stated.
Scott expects the boost in home price appreciation during the winter market when inventory is reduced will moderate. "Over the second half of the year, as more listings come on the market, home price appreciation tends to flatten out," he explained while noting small upticks in mortgage interest rates. Such increases have led to slightly higher mortgage payments, Scott said, "but they have not put a damper on the market."
New construction could also help ease some of the pressure, suggests Mike Grady, president and COO at Coldwell Banker Bain. "Even though Commerce Department data show purchases of newly built single-family homes nationwide fell 7.8 percent in January after dropping 7.6 percent in December, and purchases have declined for four of the past six months, we are not seeing that trend in the Northwest."
Inventory is improving in some areas, Grady noted, adding, "The hyper job market in the Pacific Northwest continues to outpace almost every metro area in the nation, and thus our housing market is booming; for now, there is no end in sight."
Ken Anderson, president/owner and designated broker at Coldwell Banker Evergreen in Olympia, noted some buyers are frustrated with what appears to be lack of choice. "The reality is, we have an 8-year high in the number of homes coming to market in Thurston County," he stated. His analysis of MLS data show the total number of new listings added in that county in the first two months of this year is at the highest level since 2010.
"The challenge is that the number of buyers is near record highs, too," said Anderson. Given this competition, he believes "The right plan, including help from a skilled broker, can help buyers find success in this fast-paced market."
"Many buyers and sellers feel looming pressure, and with a mix of doom and elation, both are preparing for a flurry of activity," reported George Moorhead, designated broker at Bentley Properties. "We have not seen the typical aggressive spring market yet," he added, noting "Buyers are coming to the harsh reality that high home prices are here to stay" and they need to consider smaller homes or longer than hoped-for drive times.
Moorhead also noted 30-year mortgage rates climbed slightly for the seventh consecutive weekly increase, but he said these small increases "are not yet creating too much of a stir." Conversations with buyers are "more around the cost of commuting and time away from home versus floor plan and home size."
For some wage earners in the Seattle area, "Kitsap looks very affordable," said Northwest MLS board member Frank Wilson. "Kitsap's real estate market continues at a flurry pace with homes going off the market almost as fast as they come on. Available inventory in our county is down 32 percent compared to a year ago, which continues to put upward pressure on prices and buyer's nerves," stated Wilson, the branch managing broker at John L. Scott Real Estate in Poulsbo.
As commuters flock to the more affordable side of the sound, "affordability gets further and further in the rearview mirror for many," Wilson lamented. MLS statistics for February show year-over-year prices in Kitsap County jumped more than 15.7 percent, with single family home prices up 17.5 percent. Compared to January, last month's prices for homes and condos in that county rose another $25,000 (8.3 percent).
"Kingston, Bremerton, and Port Orchard markets are surfing in the wake of the new foot ferry service with attention being paid to those from the east side of Puget Sound seeking affordability to the west," Wilson reported. In fact, he added, "It is becoming more common in Kitsap to see all cash offers, no inspection contingency, and sellers that are reviewing all offers on a future date."
Similar practices are occurring elsewhere. Commenting on the competitive market in many parts of the Northwest MLS service area, O'Leyar reported instances of "buyers making offers with zero contingencies and having the seller fill in the sales price!"
"History tells us that the real estate market is cyclical," acknowledged O'Leyar, who also mentioned the Federal Reserve chairman hinting at further rate increases and possible impacts on the pace of appreciation and the availability of listings. "Hopefully," he suggested, "Any changes in interest rates will have a moderating effect, easing the extremely difficult times some buyers are having in purchasing real estate in the Greater Seattle/Puget Sound market."
Northwest Multiple Listing Service, owned by its member real estate firms, is the largest full-service MLS in the Northwest. Its membership of more than 2,200 member offices includes more than 28,000 real estate professionals. The organization, based in Kirkland, Wash., currently serves 23 counties in the state.
Statistical Summary By Counties
Market Activity Summary and 4-County Puget Sound Region Pending Sales (PDF)