Home sales surge in November

The real estate industry is hoping that the positive growth in local home sales last month was more than a flash in the pan.

November was no turkey when it came to residential real estate sales. In fact, it marked the return of something the industry hasn't seen in quite a while: a sense of urgency among buyers.

Buyers across the state moved to close on homes to take advantage of an $8,000 federal tax credit, originally set to expire at the end of last month.

Figures from the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors released Thursday show that home closings for the region surged 80 percent last month to 783 transactions, nearly double the number from last November.

The tax credit, experts said, helped make up for widespread buyer uncertainty caused by high unemployment, persistent economic woes and an unstable real estate market that could lead prices to fall further. Rock-bottom interest rates for home mortgage loans also contributed to the increase.

"Last year, we were right on the heels of a financial meltdown," said Jeremy Willits, a commercial real estate agent and the 2010 president of the Realtors group. "Now there's a recovery on the horizon, so they're feeling better but still cautiously optimistic."

The federal tax incentive later was extended to April 30 and expanded to include a $6,500 credit for existing homeowners who buy a new place after living in their current residence for at least five years. Local homeowners rushed to close in November anyway, eager to get into their homes before the holidays set in.

Charleston's surge outshone other South Carolina markets, such as Columbia, which saw a 69 percent increase. Industry experts, though, warned that the robust home sales aren't expected to last.

"We have had it better, and it does feel good," longtime Columbia real estate agent Jay Graham said. "But you have to read behind the lines and get the big picture. You can't just keep paying people to buy houses."

Locally, Charleston County saw the biggest boost with twice the amount of home sales compared with November 2008. Berkeley County sales grew 65 percent, while Dorchester County increased 42 percent.

Buyers still have an overwhelming number of homes to choose from, with 9,429 homes listed for sale in the three-county region. That supply has pushed down sales prices as buyers lower their asking prices to compete with a growing number of bargain-priced foreclosed properties and short-sale deals.

November's median home price was $173,000, a 6.7 percent drop from $185,503 a year ago.

Despite the prospect of falling values, first timers are opting to buy because the financial risk associated with lower-priced home is less, said Michael Dew, an agent for Coldwell Banker United Realtors.

"At that house price, you don't see much variation," Dew said, adding that one-third of his recent home sales were to first-time buyers.

Those buyers, for the most part, fit into the same category: young couples who are employed. Despite high jobless rates, Willits of the Realtors association said those who remain employed have gained a sense of job security as mass layoffs taper off.

Dew added that, historically, interest rates also have given buyers confidence to close.

Mortgage rates rose slightly this week but still remain at historical lows with the average fixed rate on 30-year mortgages at 4.81 percent. Last year at this time, the average fixed rate for 30-year mortgages was 5.47 percent.

The Federal Reserve has kept rates around 5 percent this year by purchasing $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities in an effort to make home buying more affordable and bolster the housing market.

Low rates are leading more homeowners to call their brokers. Mortgage applications to buy a home rose 4 percent last week, while refinance applications jumped 11 percent from the prior week, the Mortgage Bankers Association said.