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Originally published September 5, 2012 at 11:52 AM | Page modified September 6, 2012 at 3:08 PM

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Sales hot in August for homes in King County

Robust August caps the busiest summer for home sales in King County in five years.

Seattle Times business reporter

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A robust August capped the busiest summer for home sales in King County in five years, according to statistics released Wednesday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

Buyers closed on 2,156 houses last month -- the largest number so far this year, and the fourth straight month with more than 2,000 sales.

Before that statistical barrier was breached in May, there hadn't been a 2,000-sale month since bubbly August 2007. Compared with a year ago, summer sales volume was up 21 percent.

The prices that houses fetched rose as well -- from a median in the $345,000-$350,000 range in June, July and August 2011 to $375,000-$380,000 this summer.

The median price in August was $378,000, up 8 percent from the same month last year. Prices have been up year-over-year every month since April.

It all sounds good if you're selling, or thinking about it.

But can this recovery last?

Two analysts say they foresee no imminent turnaround. But they won't rule it out.

"I think things are going to continue this way for a while," said real-estate blogger Tim Ellis of Seattlebubblecom. "But I really think it just hinges on the economy."

Seattle-area home prices are rising in part because the region is adding jobs, he said, but an unexpected development could throw both trends into reverse.

"I'd say the market is in a tentatively stable state," Ellis said.

Glenn Crellin, associate director of research at the University of Washington's Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, said the economy and real-estate market both could suffer if the federal government doesn't find a way around the so-called "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases and spending cuts at the end of the year.

But for now, he added, the local market looks healthy. Rising prices are giving more formerly "underwater" homeowners -- who once owed lenders more than their homes were worth -- equity in their houses again, he said.

In addition to strong sales and rising prices, the other big real-estate story of the summer was inventory -- more precisely, lack of it.

The number of active single-family listings in King County was down 36 percent in August compared with the same month last year, according to the listing service.

It's been that way for most of the year. Inventory hasn't been this low since at least 2000, according to Ellis.

If the current heady sales pace continues, existing inventory theoretically could be gone in just 2 1/2 months, Crellin said. That imbalance between supply and demand is one reason prices are rising, he added.

Realtors say those rising prices could increase inventory.

"Our hope is that many homeowners who were underwater can now afford to sell because of the continued appreciation of home prices," OB Jacobi, president of Windermere Real Estate, said in a prepared statement.

Another reason prices are rising: The mix of houses that are selling has changed.

Last month bank-repossessed houses, which usually sold at a steep discount, made up just 6 percent of all King County sales, down from 17 percent in August 2011, according to online brokerage Redfin.

It hasn't been this low in more than three years.

And, mortgage rates have not been so low in 60 years. The interest rate on a 30-year loan had declined to 3.49 percent in August, the lowest since long-term mortgages began in the 1950s.

North King County -- Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Kenmore -- saw the biggest bump in both sales and prices in August, according to the listing service. Single-family sales volume was up 40 percent year-over-year, the median price up nearly 11 percent.

The median house price was up 8 percent in Seattle, with West Seattle and Northeast Seattle leading the way. But sales volume rose at a slower pace than in any other part of the county -- up just 13 percent from August 2011.

On the Eastside, in contrast, sales were up 27 percent, while prices rose just 2 percent.

King County condo sales volume was up 18 percent countywide, but the median price --$194,750 -- rose just 1 percent from August 2011.

Condo prices were essentially flat in downtown Seattle but up nearly 28 percent in the listing-service area that includes downtown Bellevue.

In Snohomish County, the median single-family sale price was $269,850, up nearly 9 percent from a year earlier. There were 17 percent more closed sales.

Eric Pryne: epryne@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2231

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