Psyched to rediscover her native James Island, Pam Bass listed her Summerville home this spring. In three weeks, the house bagged a contract.

That's 21 days, just more than 500 hours, the time it takes to receive delivery of clothes ordered from Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister Co.

Welcome to the metro Charleston housing market. Sales picked up speed beginning in February and experienced even more intense activity in the past month as U.S. mortgage interest rates edged upward and buyers scrambled to lock in at lower rates.

“I definitely think now is the perfect time to buy,” says Bass, a Realtor with Century 21 Properties Plus. She is finding out what buyers are seeing: multiple offers for the same house and properties clamped under contract nearly as soon as they hit the market.

“We just moved into a rental. I'm experiencing it first hand,” Bass says.

The agent joins hundreds of buyers, investors and curb-kickers realizing they better move now or prices and costs could climb again while home inventories continue to shrink.

According to the national Mortgage Bankers Association, the average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances of $417,500 or less increased to 4.46 percent, the highest rate since August 2011. They had been at 4.17 percent.

Mortgage rates react most directly to movements in U.S. Treasury bonds.

“Interest rates moved up sharply following the Federal Reserve press conference last Wednesday where it was indicated that the Fed could begin tapering their asset purchases later this year,” says Mike Fratantoni, vice president of research and economics for the Mortgage Bankers Association.

“However, applications for conventional purchase loans picked up by more than 3 percent over the week, and total purchase applications were 16 percent higher than one year ago, indicating that homebuyers are not yet dissuaded by the increase in mortgage rates,” he says.

Bass agrees that rising rates mark a sense of urgency for buyers worried about 7 percent interest or higher but aren't exorbitantly high at current numbers. “I think that interest rates are still low, and people, they don't know what the future is going to hold,” she says.

Despite the pop in rates last week, regional economists forecast slow and steady growth in metro Charleston. They point out that surging interest rates mark but one factor in the housing equation.

According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency's Home Price Index, prices in the Charleston area have appreciated in four of the past five quarters, says Joey Von Nessen, research economist at the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business. He addressed the Charleston Home Builders Association last week.

Von Nessen says the significant price increase stretch over the past 15 months provides a “clear indication (the housing market) bottomed out.” Charleston was first to hit a floor and then rebound, with Greenville second. The chief reason? “Employment growth leads to housing demand,” he says.

In a comparison of FHFA and Charleston Trident Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service figures, “consumers favor less expensive homes except in 2009” — when they had an extra cash infusion from the federal homebuyers tax credit, Von Nessen says.

“Resales are really dominating the Charleston market overall except in fourth quarter 2012,” according to Von Nessen.

He expects to see the retail average drop to 63 percent, with 37 percent newly built houses. In 2012, the resale share reached as high as 78 percent, while “just 22 percent of homes sold in 2012 came from new home sales,” Von Nessen says.

“That dynamic is changing.”

Local real estate professionals remain ambivalent about surging mortgage rates.

Will Jenkinson, broker-in-charge of Carolina One New Homes, says rising rates are a “double edged sword.” Higher interest costs “brought buyers off the sidelines,” he says, yet climbing rates do make homes more expensive.

The market's unsettled if improving performance prompted one major real estate agency in greater Charleston to send out a message June 23 to “clients and friends” assessing the housing trade's outlook.

“It is certainly amazing how fast the real estate market can change,” says Michael Scarafile, president of Carolina One Real Estate Services, in his open letter.

“The overall real estate market is strong,” he says. “Compared with this time last year, the number of homes for sale is down 13 percent, written contracts have increased 27 percent and closed sales have increased 22 percent.”

He says, “A 'healthy' market is driven by a balance between supply and demand. As demand for housing increases and supply diminishes, values increase.”

Scarafile cites local MLS totals showing the average home sales price increased 5.6 percent from this time last year and the median, or midpoint, price jumped 8.1 percent.

“If I want to buy, what does this mean for me? Real estate continues to be extremely affordable,” Scarafile says.

He uses the example of a buying a $200,000 home with a 10 percent down payment at the top of the market in 2006 when average interest rates were 6.5 percent. The average monthly mortgage payment would be $1,137.

“Today, with average rates around 4 percent, a $200,000 home with a 10 percent down payment would cost $859 a month — 25 percent less.

“Although prices and interest rates are beginning to edge up,” Scarafile says, “both remain a real advantage to buyers right now.”

Meanwhile to purchase a home, there must also be sellers — whether individual owners or homebuilders.

Scarafile says the market should stay healthy for sellers, too. Move-up buyers can sell their homes as the market strengthens and acquire the properties they want while “rates are still low and good values are still available.”

Owners prepared to sell can compete against fewer homes on the market as inventories decline and the number of possible buyers increases. That leads to higher sale prices. “There are many homeowners who wanted to sell several years ago and couldn't, either because their mortgage was higher than the value in their home, or they chose not to because the timing was not right,” Scarafile says.

“If you fall into either category and are still thinking about moving, this is a good time to reevaluate.”

Bass says she's bullish on home sales, expecting an uptick but not a wholesale flood of new deals and construction that could sour the market.

“I think it's still under control,” she says. “Homes that are in good shape, that don't need a lot of work, are priced right.” With houses that need a facelift, “People still want to deal.”

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.