Lot for sale sign in Mount Pleasant

Home sales throughout the Charleston region set a record in 2019, beating the previous record set in 2017. Warren L. Wise/Staff

In a year of up-and-down sales and depressed showings, the Charleston area posted a new record in home sales in 2019 amid lower interest rates, plenty of jobs and a surging economy.

Residential transactions rose nearly 20 percent in December with 1,554 homes changing hands. The median sales price of $275,000 was up $2,000, or 0.7 percent, from a year earlier.

The final month's figures pushed total sales for all of 2019 to 18,576, up 2.1 percent from last year, and beating the all-time high of 18,410 set in 2017, according to data released Wednesday by the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.

The median price climbed 4.2 percent to $277,500 over the 12-month period, an $11,237 gain from 2018.

Bobette Fisher, the 2020 president of the association, attributed the record-selling home sales to a strong job market, lower borrowing costs and the region's international appeal.

"Charleston is a popular destination," said Fisher, who is with Carolina One Real Estate. "People are looking for a place that offers cultural amenities, good health care and a world-class airport. We check all of those boxes."

Low mortgage rates, low unemployment and continued wage growth are expected to sustain a healthy pace of home buying into the new year, the North Charleston-based group said in its monthly report.

"Our regional market is being fueled by the strength of our local economy," Fisher said. "Buyer activity is strong, with this year's record number of closings, but with more inventory, we could see an even higher level of transactions."

She said the region is thriving and riding the wave of robust economic expansion, but noted regional housing decisions will affect continued success in the future.

"Closing the gates is not an option and that mindset only fuels a market that will be unsustainable in the long term," Fisher said. "We need to focus on growing where it makes sense, embracing density close to transit options and planning for the future of our region, rather than trying to go back to where it was 10 years ago."

The supply of housing has steadily declined since 2010, when nearly 9,100 homes were for sale as the region's real estate market was still recovering from the last recession.

For December, that figure plummeted 17 percent from the same month in 2018 to less than 4,800 as "active" for sale, according to CHS Regional MLS, formerly called the Charleston Trident Multiple Listing Service. 

To keep up with the region’s population growth, about 7,500 new housing units each year are needed, a benchmark that hasn’t been met since 2006, according to housing officials.

Helping boost last year's tally was the lowering of interest rates by almost three-quarters of a percentage point from the previous year, when the Federal Reserve raised rates four times and stemmed home-buying demand in late 2018.

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Helping boost Charleston's housing sales is its strong economy, according to University of South Carolina research economist Joey Von Nessen. 

"Charleston has been growing at the fastest rate in the state overall," he said of the region's employment gains.

South Carolina's unemployment rate in November dropped to a historic low of 2.4 percent, lower than the national rate of 3.5 percent.

The Charleston region has led the state in recent years in job growth as the automotive and aerospace industries expanded. The metro area's jobless rate in November stood at 1.8 percent, the lowest of any region of the state.

Looking forward, interest rates remain relatively low after falling for much of last year with the Fed rate cuts.

Last week, the rate on a 30-year mortgage dropped, averaging 3.64 percent in the latest report from home loan financial firm Freddie Mac. The rate on a 15-year loan dipped to an average of 3.07 percent.

Growth will continue in the new year but at a more moderate pace as employers run up against the labor shortage, which could cut into further expansion, Von Nessen said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.