January 27, 2013

Area housing market shows signs of renewed vigor

Charles Oliver

— Housing markets in Whitfield and Murray counties bounced back in 2012, with the average sales price increasing in both counties and total sales up in Whitfield from 2011.

Data from Dalton MLS Inc., a multiple listing service, show that the average sales price of a home in Whitfield County rose to $94,415 in 2012 from $80,657 the previous year, an increase of 17.06 percent. Meanwhile the average price rose to $80,433 from $69,922 in Murray County, an increase of 15.03 percent.

By comparison, the median sales price for Georgia as a whole rose just 4.8 percent in 2012, according to the Georgia Association of Realtors.

Total transactions in Murray County dipped to 205 in 2012 from 223 the prior year, but the total number of transactions rose to 661 in Whitfield County in 2012 from 617 in 2011.

“We haven’t seen those two items, sales and average sales price, both increase in probably the last five years or six years,” said Mike Maret, a broker with Coldwell Banker Kinard Realty. “Those two going up together is very encouraging.”

The total number of new listings in both counties dropped to 713 from 843, a 15.42 percent drop, which Maret says is also encouraging. By comparison, new listings for the state of Georgia as a whole dropped 11.5 percent.

“One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced since 2008, 2009, is the high, high inventory of homes out there, which was driving prices down,” Maret said. “For the last five years, it has been a buyers market. That’s shifting a little bit.”

Maret says the demand is strong for homes priced under $100,000, where he says it is becoming more common both to receive multiple offers and for the houses to sell at or above the listed price.

But Whitfield County also saw strong growth in sales of houses priced at $200,000 or above, 51 such homes sold in 2012 compared to 28 in 2011.

“The perception for our area is that everything is slow and depressed, but we really have made some gains,” Maret said.

“We still have some challenges that we are facing. We still have some appraisal issues because we still don’t have as many comparables as we need,” he said.

Why are the number of sales and prices starting to rise?

“I think it’s a combination of things. There’s pent-up demand. A lot of people have been sitting on their hands, waiting to see what will happen. And interest rates are still at historically very low levels,” Maret said. “An FHA (Federal Housing Administration) loan is still at 3.25 percent for a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage, which is mind boggling compared to where it was 10, 15 years ago. In the early 1980s, it was 16 or 17 percent, and we were selling houses then.”

Robert Culp, assistant professor of economics at Dalton State College, said the housing numbers are “a pretty good sign” for the Greater Dalton economy.

“But I guess the concern is that these historically low interest rates can’t be maintained forever. If they start to go up, it could choke off the housing market. The hope is that by the time that they do start to increase the economy has started growing more strongly, more people have jobs and higher incomes, and they can afford to buy houses even at higher interest rates,” he said.