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RISMEDIA, February 27, 2010—(MCT)—The good news is, it’s a buyers’ market. The bad news is, it’s a buyers’ market. From the rubble of the housing collapse has arisen a seemingly endless supply of houses from which to choose. Good news if you’re buyer. Challenging news if you’re a seller. Mixed news if you’re a Realtor.

The extension of the home buyers’ credit is expected to spur an increase in sales during the first quarter of 2010, normally the slowest quarter of the year, said Gary Walter, executive vice president of the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors Inc.

With competitive prices, low interest rates and a huge tax credit on their side, buyers are jumping off the fence. And if you’ve got a house to sell, there are things you can do to make sure they land on your side, Realtors say.

“If you’re looking around your house and you ask yourself: ‘Should I paint this room?’ you probably should,” said Ryan Arnt, associate president of Meredith and Kamp Realtors of Stevensville.

Another piece of advice from area Realtors—be reasonable about the price. And be flexible. “If you’re going to list your house, it’s going to disrupt your lifestyle pattern for awhile. You’ll need to be willing to show at a moment’s notice, be as agreeable and as flexible as possible, and put a little effort into it. The return will be worth it,” said Sharon Halliburton, broker associate with American Homes of Stevensville. She and other area Realtors say the worst is over. “I’m extremely optimistic. We’ve turned a corner,” Halliburton said.

National picture
After a surge last year from September through November, the original deadline for a $8,000 tax credit, existing home sales nationally fell in December 2009. But prices rose from December 2008 and sales overall improved in 2009, according to the National Association of Realtors.

For all of 2009, there were 5.1 million existing home sales, 4.9% higher than the 4.9 million transactions recorded in 2008, the first annual sales gain since 2005.

On the other hand, in Southwest Michigan, residential sales totaled just over $381.6 million in 2009, down 18% from nearly $465.9 million in 2008. It was the area’s third consecutive year of decline in the real estate market.

The number of single-family homes sold in 2009 was within 1% of the number sold in 2008, but the average selling price, $151,190, was down 18%. The median selling price of $93,550 was down 22% from 2008. Total closed sales, including single-family and multi-family houses, vacant land and commercial property, also dropped 18%, from $516.43 million in 2008 to just over $422.2 million in 2009.

In Southwest Michigan, Walter said prices have been influenced by the percentage of bank-owned homes on the market. He said that between May and November 2009, bank-owned houses accounted for about 35% of the total unit sales. In December that figure climbed to 45%.

Arnt said he’s not quick to steer potential buyers to bank-owned listings. “Most of the banks are willing to negotiate, and that brings down the price. But I typically tell my folks that if somebody couldn’t afford to pay their mortgage, what else haven’t they been able to keep up about the house? There’s more risk. You have to be willing to gamble,” he said.

But Art Atilla, a Realtor working primarily in St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, said there’s a reason the average number of days on the market in Benton Harbor in 2009 was 91, down 11% from 2008 and the quickest turn-around time in Southwest Michigan last year. “There’s a greater number of repossessed homes in Benton Harbor, and those are being sold off quickly because investors can pick them up for $15,000 to $30,000, depending on the location,” he said. “Is it better to have empty houses owned by banks, or have an investor buy it, clean it up and get it going? The best thing would be a for a family to buy it. But these houses need to be bought by somebody.”

Economists say the market is going through swings driven by the tax credit. The extension of the tax credit is expected to spur an increase in sales during the first quarter of 2010, normally the slowest quarter of the year. The extension gives buyers until April 30 to buy and until June 30 to close. The credit, up to $8,000, originally was for first-time buyers only, but has been extended to include homeowners who have lived in their home for five of the last 8 years. These people get up to $6,500. Extension of the tax credit adds more potential buyers to the market.

By early summer, the market should benefit from a more balanced inventory, leading to an overall rise in sales in 2010, economists say.

Jobs, jobs, jobs
But a lot could depend on the job market. Realtors say job creation is the key to a continued recovery in the housing market.

Once the home buyer tax credit ends at the end of April, and if mortgage rates rise after March, will the market be in trouble again? Since most of the fuel to the housing market in 2009 was provided by the government, does the market remain too fragile for the government help to end? Arnt predicts the government will let the tax credit expire, then launch some other incentive down the road. That might be a good thing, he said. “I think they announced too early that they were going to extend it, without letting the original one expire. There were people on the fence who didn’t get off because they heard the credit was going to be extended,” he said.

Arnt is optimistic about the housing market’s future. “Personally, I feel very confident. I think the worst is over. I think we definitely have bottomed out, and things are looking very positive. There’s buyer activity that wasn’t there 30-60 days ago.” Arnt said potential buyers are breathing a sigh of relief, having made it through the holidays with their jobs intact. “I think people are more comfortable and feel that the market has been through the worst and is on the way to recovery,” he said.

Realtors are hoping that a shrinking inventory will help improve the average sales price. The December 2009 inventory dropped 7% from December 2008. In Southwest Michigan, there are 2,803 houses listed, which equates to a 13.3-month supply. That is down from a 16.5-month supply in November 2009 and a 14.1-month supply in December 2009.

National figures for January showed an inventory of 3.29 million existing homes, 11.1% below a year ago and 28.2% below the record of 4.58 million in July 2008. Nationally, the median home price in December 2009 was $178,300, 1.5% higher than in December 2008. Economists said that was due to an increased number of mid- to upper-priced houses in the mix.

Prices stabilizing
Halliburton said, after reviewing the January figures, she’s optimistic. She said that in St. Joseph and Lakeshore, there were 26 homes sold in January, a 73% jump over 15 sold last January.

The average number of days on the market for homes sold in St. Joseph and Lakeshore in January was 99, compared to 147 days a year ago. The average sales price in the same area in January was $153,648, down just $132 from a year ago.

For the entire Southwest Michigan area, she said, the average price was up 27% over a year ago. “I’m excited. These are the best numbers I’ve seen in a long time,” Halliburton said. “I’ve been listing at least one house a week since the first of the year. My spring starts in February, marketing-wise.”

To sell your house, she said, it’s got to look better than everybody else’s on the block. “Work on curb appeal outside. Inside, de-clutter, clean, paint, all the things you’ve been meaning to clean anyway- take a third of the stuff out of every room.”

Atilla recommends “staging” a house before putting it on the market. “You get somebody with a good eye and you can cost-effectively make the home as good as it can be. Paint, rearrange furniture, add color accents, put towels in the bathroom. If you need a new roof or furnace, be honest about that in your price.”

Copyright (c) 2010, The Herald-Palladium, St. Joseph, Mich.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.