Home price gains pull sellers off the sidelines

But sales volume falls in January as investor-buyers pull back.

The willing home seller — a relatively elusive breed in metro Atlanta’s fickle housing market — may be reappearing.

New home listings jumped 17.2 percent in January compared to the same month last year, buoyed by rising home values and the prolonged economic recovery. It’s not yet clear if the surge is a sign of sellers finally coming off the sidelines, but if the trend continues it could signal a more normal market and a stronger spring home-buying season.

The region’s inventory of available homes is still very low by historical standards. But given improved job growth, price gains and recent corporate relocations such as Mercedes-Benz USA, 2015 could be a better year, said Ennis Antoine, president of the Atlanta Board of Realtors, which released market data on Monday.

“We’re looking at about three-and-a-half months-worth of inventory,” he said. “A good strong market is about six months (supply). I think as prices rise, we will see the inventory increase.”

Realtors have hoped price gains over the past couple years would lead to more homes for sale, but the market in many ways has moved in frustrating fits and starts.

Antoine said the recovery isn’t even. Intown locations north of downtown and the northern suburbs remain the strongest markets, while areas to the south remain challenged. But jobs are returning throughout the region, which should help values across metro Atlanta.

Theresa Stowe and her husband Judson are about to test the market. The couple bought a new home in Druid Hills in August, but they have yet to list their former home in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood.

Stowe said they repainted their old place and put down new carpet, and they expect to list the two-bedroom townhouse next week. A shotgun bungalow down the street sold for more than she thought it would, she said.

“Our area of town seems to be selling,” she said. “We’ve made the renovations we think will make it more appealing to people.”

The Atlanta Board of Realtors, which tracks sales in 11 counties, reported that total sales fell nearly 10 percent in January compared to the same month a year ago. But that’s not necessarily bad news. The decline was largely because of fewer investor buyers business people who often pay cash and flip homes or plan to rent a property while waiting for it to appreciate.

Median sale prices climbed in January by 13.4 percent compared to a year ago as traditional purchases made up a bigger proportion of regional sales. Traditional sales those in which the buyer plans to live in the home — tend to come at higher prices.

Atlanta reached peak prices in July 2007, but then values crashed when the financial crisis hit, along with a glut of foreclosures.

Home values bottomed out locally in March 2012 at levels not seen since the mid-1990s, according to data from the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. Metro Atlanta values have since returned to early 2004 levels.

Housing usually drives an economy coming out of a recession, but the residential market is still rankled by tight supply and lending standards that make it difficult for buyers to qualify, experts say.

Many buyers also do not have the money needed for a down-payment, and some still have credit histories bruised from the fallout of the recession. Younger adults, who may have had careers delayed or have steep student loan debts, have shown a preference for renting over buying.

Many homeowners who held on after the housing collapse were left with underwater mortgages, meaning they owe more than their houses are worth.

But as values climb, more would-be sellers could enter the market, Antoine said.

That’s the case, at least in part, for the Stowes. Theresa Stowe said they bought their new Druid Hills home to have more space for their two kids and to be in a better school district. They bought the townhouse in Cabbagetown in 2005, near the peak of the market. Nearly a decade later, Stowe said she hopes they won’t take a loss.

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