Slight bump in February home sales and prices in San Juan County

Amid frigid temperatures and frigid economy, a ray of sunshine peeked through the clouds. But don’t break out your shades yet.

There were six closed sales and seven pending sales in San Juan County on homes listed with the Northwest Multiple Listing Service in February. The median sales price was $520,000, up from $492,500 the same month a year ago and $480,000 for all 12 months of 2008.

The number of pending sales was a drop from 15 in February 2008. But other market activity was up 31.97 percent: 46 new listings, up from 28 in February the previous year, and 388 total active listings, up from 294.

Consider January: Four sales, down from 13 in January 2008. A 15.04 percent drop in the median home price. A 25 percent drop in the number of pending sales.

Does February show a thaw in the market?

On the mainland, Ron Sparks, managing vice president of Coldwell Banker Bain, told the Northwest MLS that housing affordability regionwide is at its best in decades.

“This certainly appears to be a once-in-a-generation home-buying opportunity, but it’s also coupled with a once-in-a-generation economy,” he said.

Sparks said the question for potential homebuyers is not whether the current economic troubles or current housing opportunities will end. “Rather, they might ask where they will be living once they do.”

The Northwest MLS report on February activity for 19 counties across Washington shows slight gains in pending sales and selling prices from January, but brokers say many would-be buyers remain paralyzed by the uncertain economy.

“They are struggling between the desire to buy a home and the uncertainty of what might come next in the way of government stimulus, tax credits or lower mortgage rates,” Sparks said.

What’s stopping buyers is weak consumer confidence, he said.

NWMLS director Dick Beeson, broker/owner of Windermere Commencement Associates in Tacoma, added, “Home values are finally at a point where affordability has returned and the market is slowly beginning to respond to the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers. (That incentive) could make a huge difference in the final quarters of the year.”

J. Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate, described the combination of historically low interest rates and increased affordability as “an opportune time for buyers to take a look at purchasing their first home.”

He said, “The $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers does not have to be repaid … and first-time buyers who purchase before April 15 can apply the tax credit to their 2008 tax return.”

The Northwest Multiple Listing Service tracks real estate data in 19 counties in central and western Washington, including San Juan County.

Regionwide, Northwest MLS brokers reported 4,559 pending sales in February, a 4.7 percent improvement over January. That total, which includes single-family homes and condominiums, was the highest volume since September 2008 when MLS members notched 5,982 pending sales. Last month’s pending sales total (offers made and accepted, but not yet closed) was down about 18 percent from 12 months ago.

Regionwide, the median price for single-family homes and condos combined was $278,000, up 1.8 percent from January, but lagging the year-ago median price of $316,950 (down about 12.3 percent). Ten counties reported increases in median prices for last month’s sales when compared with January.

Of San Juan’s real estate market, associate broker Merri Ann Simonson of Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands wrote in a January report: “People who buy in a buyers’ market are the smart and fortunate ones. They aren’t looking for an immediate gain because they know that’s a matter of great timing and maybe a little luck, not planning. They’re looking for a sound decision with a predictable result and, therefore, ask the question: ‘Has the market dropped enough now to make a sensible purchase?’

“More often than not, when they’re asking this question, they’re already in the safe zone and the answer is ‘Yes.’ Based on our inventory levels, interest rates, and low percentage of median price decreases, San Juan Island is in the safe zone.”