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Mid-Atlantic Real Estate: D.C.'s Hot, Everything Else Is Not

Jessica Rao,|Special to CNBC.com
Thursday, 8 Oct 2009 | 9:31 AM ET

Thankfully, the two-year-long storm in the mid-Atlantic housing market appears to be over. In pockets of the region, the sun is beginning to peak through, and homes are again being bought and sold. But, like the weather, the recovery is variable.

Big Trend: First-Time Homebuyers

Roycroft House
Roycroft House

The combination of the housing stimulus tax credit and greater affordability are bringing large numbers of new buyers to the market. “For first timers in any economy,” says Sal Prividera, a spokesman for the New York State Association of REALTORS, “it’s the lower end of the market that you see the greater amount of activity.”

“A first time home is certainly going to be at a lower price point in Erie County than Westchester County,” says Prividera, of the two counties within New York State.

In Erie, which includes Buffalo and Niagara Falls, the median sales price in August 2009 was $123,000, and existing home sales were up 20.3 percent year over year.

In Westchester County, New York City suburb, the median sales price was $644,250, and during the same period existing home sales fell by 10.5 percent.

Cynthia Howar, a broker with Washington Fine Properties in Washington D.C., says “usually, you see a recovery from the bottom, up, because it is easier to get a conforming loan (a loan under $730,000). It’s driven more by the banking and lending institutions. A function of the kind of money that is available to people to borrow”

Higher Peaks Mean Lower Bottoms

Local housing markets across the mid-Atlantic that were red hot only a few years ago are the ones that have cooled off the most. In the exclusive suburbs of metropolitan New York, such as Hunterdon County, New Jersey and Nassau County, New York higher-priced housing is not moving. Prices in these areas have not fallen by enough to offset the drag of jobs, incomes and wealth lost due to the financial crisis, say experts

“In 2006, Westchester was a red hot market. There were bidding wars, homes selling moments after they went on the market and multiple bids driving up prices. The market that we experienced at the hey day of the boom were simply unsustainable,” says Prividera.

Conversely, those markets that were not as inflated in the housing boom now appear stabile. It is the more obscure, chronically-sluggish areas with lower median home prices like Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Buffalo, which avoided the real estate bubble and never comparatively lost their grasp of economic reality.

Unique Local Markets

There are also several unique, hyper local market situations. The numbers, which at first look like anomalies, are indeed explicable if you look closely at the region.

In the second quarter 2009, the best performer in the mid-Atlantic region in terms of existing home sales was Washington D.C. at 5.6 percent, year over year. After that, Maryland was at 4.4 percent, Delaware -3.4 percent, New York -5.5 percent, New Jersey -10.8 percent, and Pennsylvania -15.1 percent.

Howar says, “DC real estate is always more insulated than the rest of the country. We didn’t have as big of a down as other states because the government is here. We always have a steady stream of people coming and going.”

Georgetown, DC
Georgetown, DC

Of the exclusive Hillendale section of D.C., which is in the $1-to-$1.5-million price range, Howar says, “nothing was selling in this neighborhood between last August and May. But since June, I think I’ve sold five houses in this neighborhood. We’ve also starting to see an increase in sales in the higher price ranges—the 1-million to 2-million dollar houses are selling.”

Greg Herb, president of the Pennsylvania Association of REALTORS, says the state is a “more stable market than other areas of the country" adding that because it is "more conservative and we didn’t have as big of a bubble as other places.”

For the year to date as of August, Pennsylvania’s median home price was $188,000, down only 6 percent from a year earlier, which was much shallower than the comparably measured 15.2 percent plunge by median home prices nationwide.

Camden County’s 2.2 percent year-to-year increase of 2009’s second quarter was one of only a handful of year-to-year increases in New Jersey. Sharon Fisher, a broker with Coldwell Banker in the area, says, “Camden is more affordable and a lot of people commute to Philadelphia, Princeton and Trenton.”

“We should begin to see an even greater improvement in the numbers for the third and fourth quarter because there are a lot of people who are under contract now,” Fisher says.

The market is still correcting for the excesses of the recent bubble. “The most important thing someone who is looking to buy or sell needs to do is become educated on that local market,” says Prividera.

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