Home sales dip in October

The action in homes sales this fall seems to be in the upper end of the market: The number of sales fell in October, but the median price was substanially higher than a year ago.

In the 11-county area tracked by the Atlanta Board of Realtors, 3,609 single-family homes were sold, down 4 percent from September, according to the board’s monthly report released Monday.

The median price was $208,000, also a slight decline from September, but up 11.2 percent over the past year. That is a “positive sign,” said Todd Emerson, board president. “The Atlanta housing market is in alignment with what we expect in a seasonally-based market.”

A few months ago, there was talk of the housing market accelerating out of its post-recession doldrums. Now, the market seems to have eased off: In the first 10 months of this year, there were 1.2 percent fewer sales compared to the same period last year, according to the board.

Some of that is pegged to the retreat of big investors who are no longer snapping up thousands of homes with distressed mortgages. The post-summer dip can can also be linked to the cooler weather.

Whether that continues is hard to say, said Marc Takacs, realtor at Keller Williams Realty in Midtown. “Using the weather to predict real estate is harder than trying to just predict the weather.”

Perhaps the market was simply due for a pullback, he said. “But this has been a two-year sellers’ market. Two years – that is a long time.”

Inventory – the number of homes for sale – also has leveled off and that “suggests a very balanced market in that buyers are absorbing inventory at a pace equal to new listings coming to market,” Emerson said.

But many first-time homebuyers are missing in action.

In 2009, they represented just over 40 percent of all metro Atlanta purchasers, according to John Hunt, president of ViaSearch, an Atlanta-based market research company. First-timers now account for only about 23 percent of sales. They account for about 35 percent in a healthy market, he said.

One reason is debt – like that from student loans – burdening younger adults. Job and wage growth has been modest.

Perhaps more critically, buyers must put down larger down-payments than a few years ago – while banks typically require better credit ratings.

The biggest hurdle is home price, Hunt said: The drop in first-time buyers matches the rapid price hikes of the past couple of years. “First time buyers are extremely price sensitive.”

Metro Atlanta price and sales data can be misleading because the recovery is so uneven.

In much of the south side, as well as many exurban counties, neither has recovered very strongly. But in the areas of strength, professionals see a market that has taken a hard shift toward the higher-end, said Shirley Gary, Managing Broker with Engel & Volkers Buckhead.

The company has listings from $125,000 up to $7 million, she said. “At the lower price points, they are really struggling. This is our new reality.”

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