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Thursday, October 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:24 A.M.
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Buyers scramble for homes around Puget Sound

By J. Martin McOmber
Seattle Times business reporter

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After looking at house candidate No. 30, Karen O'Bryon was feeling, well, desperate.

Relocating from the Bay Area, she, husband Patrick O'Bryon, and their three children wanted a nice-sized place with a good layout and a flat yard on a cul-de-sac.

Good luck.

Around Puget Sound, the number of homes on the market this year has been down significantly compared with 2003. The supply has fallen about 25 percent in North King County and 19 percent in Seattle and on the Eastside, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS) reported yesterday. The group tracks home sales in 15 Washington counties.

The rather slim pickings are making a difficult task even harder for many homebuyers.

"There was really nothing there," Karen O'Bryon said. "It was kind of depressing."

The O'Bryons eventually found a place in Woodinville, but only after a real-estate agent managed to turn up a couple of homes that hadn't even hit the market.

The shrinking number of listings is taking a toll on sales.

September sales dropped 5.7 percent in King County compared with the same period last year, the MLS says. Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties saw similar declines.

"Clearly that lack of inventory means you have prospective buyers in the market looking and being dissatisfied with what they are finding, which is holding back the sales rate," said Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington State University Center for Real Estate Research.

But demand remains strong, and that has helped propel home prices upward while trimming the average time homes are on the market. In King County, the median house price in September rose 9.4 percent to $299,610 compared with the same month last year.

Finding the right home under these conditions means acting fast, said Susan Jones of Windermere's Bellevue West office. Jones, who worked with the O'Bryons, said it is common these days for agents to look for properties that haven't been listed.

"The inventory is limited across the board," Jones said. "This time of year, there is less inventory coming on the market."

The supply in some neighborhoods is almost nonexistent, said Kevin Caskey, an agent with John L. Scott Real Estate.

"If there is nothing, I'll even knock on doors on occasion," Caskey said. "That is just one of the techniques you use to find properties."

The dearth of "For Sale" signs could change after the holiday season, when more homeowners tend to put their properties on the market. And pending sales — deals that have been struck but haven't closed — climbed at least slightly in many areas of King County, suggesting that September's closed sales lull could be a blip.

J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022 or mmcomber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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