January 10, 2011

D.C. Region Poised for Nation's Biggest Housing Gains

Homeowners in the Washington area can uncross their fingers -- 2011 is expected to be the best year for home prices the region has witnessed since the recession, with experts saying the area's market recovery will be tops in the nation.
The region's relatively strong uptick in prices over the last year -- second in the nation -- gives analysts reason to believe the Washington market could see a 6.5 percent increase in home prices over the next 12 months, according to a new report by Clear Capital, which tracks real estate trends. It's the biggest increase the firm is predicting across the country.

"D.C. prices are already going up for all homeowners who have purchased a home in last two years," said Alex Villacorta, senior statistician at Clear Capital. "So they are likely to see positive equity in that purchase."

It's a different story, however, for those who bought a home at the height of the housing boom in the summer of 2006. The area's home prices on average are back to their 2004 levels, while houses in the rest of the nation are averaging prices closer to 2001 levels.

Strong employment and the relatively low percentage of bank-owned foreclosures on the market are two big factors that have contributed to the Washington area's ability to stay ahead of the curve, experts said. Roughly 15 percent of properties on the market in the region are bank-owned compared with more than 40 percent in other major markets, according to Clear Capital. Unemployment is a little more than half the national average of 9.8 percent.

That helped propel Washington-area home prices in 2010 to a 5.3 percent increase, second only to Honolulu, where prices increased by 7.2 percent, according to the report.

Meanwhile neighboring markets suffered significant declines. Prices in Richmond fell last year by more than 10 percent and Baltimore-area prices fell by more than 8 percent. Clear Capital expects both markets to see losses again this year.

Nationally, prices fell by 4.1 percent in 2010. Much of it was because of the false boost the federal homebuyer tax credits gave the market during the first half of the year, which created a highly volatile atmosphere.

"They probably did as much harm as they did good because the dramatic falloff of purchases ... seems to have had the effect of further depressing prices," Rick Sharga, executive vice president of foreclosure-tracking firm RealtyTrac, said last month.

Real estate agents say it's a relief to hear the positive prediction for Washington -- but it's not surprising.

"The average length of time a property stayed on the market once we got through the tax credit [has been] declining," said Joanne Darling, president of the Prince George's County Association of Realtors. "Properties are actually staying on market less than 90 days ... [whereas] at its worst, it was longer than six months."

But location is key and real estate is highly local. Darling said she's seeing multiple offers on homes in places like Capitol Hill, Northwest D.C., Bethesda and Chevy Chase. But towns farther away from the city -- and where residents have to be more reliant on cars -- have been slow to come back, she said.

The market volatility in 2010 created a shift toward rental properties, with potential buyers in the region being afraid to invest in a home that might continue to drop in value. But Villacorta said 2011 may see a shift back toward homeownership.

"As rents start to increase, that could provide an opportunity for investors to come in and ... rent those properties back," he said. "That would drive prices up and that can swing the tide back into the favor of 'maybe it's a good time to buy.'"

By: Liz Farmer 01/06/11 12:05 AM
Examiner Staff Writer