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Buyers getting “some relief” as key indicators point to strong summer for housing market

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KIRKLAND, Washington (July 8, 2019) – Inventory, pending sales and prices all increased during June compared to a year ago, according to the latest report from Northwest Multiple Listing Service. The same report, which covers 23 counties in Washington state, shows year-over-year drops area-wide in both the volume of new listings and closed sales.

“Clearly we now see that the market is moderating – that is we’re definitely moving from a ‘hyper-market’ to one where a correction is underway compared to last year,” remarked Mike Grady, president and COO of Coldwell Banker Bain. “While it’s the best time to buy that we’ve seen in some time, and buyers are getting some relief, it is still a seller’s market,” he added, noting some buyers are experiencing multiple offer situations, or considering inspection waivers, or are even forced to consider markets outside King County for affordability.

Three Northwest MLS directors from Pierce and Kitsap counties suggest their counties are attracting some of the frustrated buyers from King County.

“The darling of the Puget Sound real estate market is Tacoma/Pierce County,” stated Dick Beeson, principal managing broker at RE/MAX Northwest Realtors in Gig Harbor, pointing to low inventory and appreciating values. “The secret is out about Pierce County,” agreed Mike Larson, the president at ALLEN Realtors in Lakewood. “You can buy twice the house for about half the price. You just have to be willing to deal with the traffic if you work north or south of here,” he proclaimed.

“The Kitsap market continues to be robust and is maintaining its velocity in sales,” added Frank C. Leach, broker/owner at RE/MAX Platinum Services in Silverdale. He believes Kitsap County will continue to be strong given its economic foundation together with its affordability factor and quick access to Seattle, but noted it is constrained by available inventory (currently at 1.4 months of supply).

MLS figures show the median price for single family homes and condos that sold last month in King County was $637,675. In Pierce County it was $372,500, about 58 percent of the King County price, and in Kitsap County it was $387,000, about 60 percent of the sales price in King County.

System-wide prices increased more than 3.5 percent from a year ago, from $425,000 to $440,000, although four counties registered declines, including Douglas, Ferry, Jefferson, and King. June’s median price was unchanged from May.

At midyear, the overall median price was $424,517, which compares to $405,000 for the first six months of 2018, an increase of 4.82 percent.

“As long as interest rates stay low and people seek value outside of King and Snohomish counties, house prices should continue their upward momentum,” stated James Young, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research (WCRER) at the University of Washington.

House hunters had a broader selection to consider as inventory at month end totaled 16,800 active listings, about 9.5 percent larger than at the same time a year ago. Brokers added 11,977 new listings during the month, a drop from both a year ago when they added, 13,153 new listings, and from May, when they added 14,689 new listings.

About half the counties reported gains in inventory, led by King County where the selection grew nearly 32 percent from a year ago.

“June listing inventory in King County exceeded the levels posted for this month over the past six years,” said John Deely, principal managing broker at Coldwell Banker Bain. “Currently, we are approaching 2012 listing inventory levels,” he noted.

Northwest MLS figures for King County show there were 5,931 active listings at the end June, the highest for that month since 2012 when the selection totaled 6,500 listings.

“Every summer, we see the highest level of new listings and homes going under contract. After the surge of new listings in May, areas close to the job centers saw listings return to the normal seasonal pattern in June,” commented J. Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate.

The Northwest MLS report indicates there is 1.76 months of inventory area-wide (matching May), with eight counties having less than two months of supply.

OB Jacobi, president of Windermere Real Estate, commented on a “considerable rise” in the number of listings priced above $1.5 million in King County. “This could be because of the changes to the Washington State Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) that take effect in 2020, which will significantly impact the tax burden of sellers whose homes sell for more than $1.5 million. I suspect we’ll see even more owners of higher priced homes trying to sell in the coming months in order to avoid the hike in taxes they’ll have to pay starting next January,” he stated.

The new tax measure changes the REET rate from a flat 1.28 percent of the selling price to a graduated rate for real property sales, with exceptions for timberland and agricultural land.

Commenting on the latest report from Northwest MLS, WCRER’s Young said “The perfect storm of low interest rates and falling inventory continues along the I-5 corridor, with double-digit house price increases also continuing.”

Beeson says the “new normal” inventory levels of 2-to-3 months of supply, rather than the traditional 4-to-6 months, makes Puget Sound different than most of the rest of the nation. In Puget Sound, homes sell twice as quickly as a traditional ‘normal’ market,” he stated, but acknowledged, “It feels kinda like things have slowed down. Folks are taking deeper breaths.”

Several brokers commented that buyers are becoming more deliberate in their searches and offers.

“Market savvy buyers are taking advantage of premium location and value pricing due to increased inventory. Price reductions are more commonplace as sellers align their expectations with today’s market,” according to Deely. He said demand remains strong, but “buyers are methodical in their search, and taking more time to jump into an offer.” Also, he noted there have been fewer multiple offers and fewer all-cash buyers in the mix when a listing has several buyers lined up to compete.

Buyers are more “tuned-in” than ever before, Beeson remarked, adding, “Buyers today have educated themselves on the vagaries of the home buying process and are better prepared to meet sellers on firmer ground. They are attentive, vigilant, and discerning toward the marketplace, knowing what they want in a home – and they are willing to wait longer to get it.”

Leach concurred. “Buyers are being very careful about what they buy and at what price,” he stated.

Commenting on King County’s numbers for new listings and new pending sales, Dean Rebhuhn said multiple offers are still occurring in the median price range, noting the 1.9 percent dip in year-over-year prices. “Buyers are seeing higher home availability while taking advantage of low interest rates.” Rebhuhn, the owner of Village Homes and Properties in Woodinville, believes those factors, coupled with summer weather and job creation will “continue to create a very active market for buyers and sellers.”

Scott also expects a “quick-action market” for many buyers when new listings come on the market, especially with interest rates in the upper threes. Looking to the months ahead, Scott anticipates strong sales activity close to job centers, while the surrounding area will experience intense, “frenzy-level sales activity” in the more affordable to mid-price ranges.

Larson believes “the big three” – interest rates, the economy, and consumer confidence – all point to a strong summer for the housing market, while contrasting King and Pierce counties. “For years, King County has been a bit like a top fuel dragster – high performing, thrilling, but maybe a bit temperamental. It got the headlines and values skyrocketed, but now it’s experiencing a bit of a hangover. Pierce County’s market is more like a diesel truck – steady, consistent, and less prone to dramatic market changes.”

Larson also offered advice for passive and first-time house hunters. “Every buyer, particularly at the entry level, needs to understand they can’t simply dip their toe in the water when competing for a home. They need to do a belly flop. They need to put their best foot forward right out of the gate.” He also urged buyers to work with a Realtor who understands the market and who can guide them through the process.

Several representatives from Northwest MLS also suggested sellers need to learn the “new normal” as Beeson calls it. “If you overprice your home or fail to get it in good condition for selling, it will cost you time and money in the end, he stated, adding, “Seller’s can’t afford to be tuned out to what the market is saying.”

For sellers in Kitsap County, broker Frank Wilson says pricing is becoming more important. “Our county is starting to feel some of the changes King County has experienced. List price has to more accurately reflect what the home will sell for in today’s market,” explained Wilson, Kitsap regional manager and branch managing broker at John L. Scott Real Estate in Poulsbo. Although Wilson reported multiple offer situations and good traffic at open houses, he emphasized sellers “can no longer chance shooting for the moon, pricewise, or they risk getting stuck on the launch pad.”

Condo activity was mixed during June with year-over-year declines in the number of new listings added to inventory, as well as in the volume of pending and closed sales. Total inventory grew more than 41 percent, although at month-end there was only about 1.9 months of supply. Prices overall were nearly unchanged from a year ago. The median price for June’s sales was $367,000, up about a percentage point from a year ago when the median price was $363,500.

Northwest Multiple Listing Service, owned by its member real estate firms, is the largest full-service MLS in the Northwest. Its membership of around 2,300 member offices includes more than 29,000 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)

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