Shrinking inventory breaks fall in King County home prices
Countywide, the median price slipped, but in Seattle it was up about 3 percent year-over-year as the number of homes on the market in February fell to a five-year low.
Seattle Times business reporter
Fewer homes are listed for sale in King County now than at any time since the housing crisis began, and observers say the lack of inventory is starting to influence prices, at least in some neighborhoods.
Don't get excited — overall, prices are still down.
Countywide, the median single-family sale price hit another postboom low in February — $308,125, down 2 percent from January, 8 percent from February 2011 and nearly 36 percent from the market's peak in July 2007.
Glenn Crellin, assistant director for research at the University of Washington's Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, said he wouldn't be surprised if the median dips below $300,000.
But in Seattle, the February median house price actually rose about 3 percent year-over-year, to $365,000, according to statistics released Monday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
And it fell less than many expected — between 3 and 4 percent — in Southwest and Southeast King County, the most affordable areas, where bank-repossessed houses and short sales accounted for more than half of all February transactions.
The dearth of listings is helping to prop prices up — or at least keep them from falling further, some experts and industry professionals say.
If a home is priced reasonably, "almost every listing is getting at least two offers," said Phil Leng, a Keller Williams Realty broker in Kirkland.
He said he represented one first-time buyer who offered $61,000 more than the asking price for a Seattle bank-owned home.
His client lost out — to one of the 11 other prospective buyers who submitted offers.
The total number of houses and condos on the market in King County last month was down 32 percent countywide and 38 percent in Seattle from February 2011, according to the listing service.
There haven't been this few homes listed for sale in any February since 2006.
Inventory usually increases between December and February, said real-estate blogger Tim Ellis of Seattlebubble.com. This year, it's down. "If we keep this up," he said, "we'll be at a record low for inventory in a month or two."
Some homeowners are taking advantage of that, Ellis added. He told of a Ravenna house, listed at $500,000, that at least one real-estate professional considered overpriced.
In just three days, the seller had a full-price offer.
Why are so few owners putting their homes up for sale? Many are underwater on their mortgages — they bought when prices were at or near the peak — and can't afford to sell, Ellis said.
Competition from the big backlog of mostly lower-priced distressed properties also is discouraging prospective sellers, Crellin added.
Despite the lack of inventory, sales in King County rose last month. Buyers closed on 1,230 houses, up 23 percent from February 2011. It was the best February for sales since 2007.
Southwest and Southeast King County accounted for two-thirds of the year-over-year increase.
The surge wasn't because of any jump in sales of distressed properties. Bank-repossessed homes and short sales for less than what sellers owe lenders accounted for 37 percent of all King County single-family sales — exactly the same percentage as the same month last year, according to an analysis of listing-service data by Washington Property Solutions, a short-sale marketing firm.
But the prices those houses fetched fell more steeply than other homes. While the overall median price slipped 8 percent year-over-year, bank-owned houses were down 15 percent, short sales 11 percent.
Leng, the Kirkland broker, said prices are down because the mix of houses that are selling has changed.
"The first-time buyer is back in the race," he said, "so the lower-priced houses are selling first."
King County condos sold more briskly, but for steeper price discounts, than houses. Closed sales were up 43 percent from February 2011, but the median price, $159,950, was down a whopping 33 percent.
Distressed properties make up a bigger share of the county's condo inventory, Crellin said.
Closed sales of houses in Snohomish County were up 45 percent in February over the same month last year. But the decline in the median price was a modest 1.3 percent, from $242,000 to $238,750.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231