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March 2012

03/28/12 by David Howell

“Is it a Buyers' Market or a Sellers' Market?”

That was the question recently posed in an online forum for area REALTORS®. After five years of a very challenging market, it is encouraging that this is even a plausible question – but it is based on the false premise that market conditions are the same everywhere and for every type of property in Washington, DC.

ThrougAbsorption Ratesh the first three months of the year, contract activity is up more than 8% from the same time last year, and listing inventory is down 29%. And that means that there is less than a three-month supply of homes on the market. By any historical measure, that looks a lot like a sellers’ market: relatively low supply being chased by more purchasers. But let’s also put this into perspective from the low point in the market – 2008. 

We took a look at the four key market indicators for the first three months of this year and compared that to the same time period of 2008. Clearly the biggest difference is the number of listings on the market. The average month-end inventory in the first quarter of 2008 was slightly less than 3,000 and it has been slightly more than 1,600 so far this year. That’s a 44% drop. In 2008, the market was flooded with an overwhelming number of new listings – more than 3,000 in the first quarter – as many sellers recognized that the boom market was truly over and tried to cash in. So buyers had plenty of choices, and took their time making a decision. The average time on the market for properties going under contract was 84 days. This year, a third fewer new listings have come on the market, so buyers have fewer choices and they are acting a bit more quickly when they see an appropriately priced listing. The average time on the market has been 75 days so far this year. Note that contract activity hasn’t increased nearly as much as inventory has declined. Now, we’re thrilled that 1,800 homes have gone under contract so far this year – that’s an almost 30% jump from 2008 – however, this year’s contract activity is still well below the levels seen in the first quarter of 2007. Buyers are incented by very, very low mortgage interest rates, but they are still cautious. The reality is that the tight market has far more to do with limited inventory than high demand.

The tight market does mean that there are hot spots, but it’s not hot everywhere. The market is absorbing almost half of the available inventory of townhomes priced between $500,000 and $750,000 every month – and less than 3% of condos priced more than $1,500,000. There’s just a 45-day supply of homes in Adams Morgan, and more than nine months in Foggy Bottom. There are areas and price ranges where short sales and foreclosures are still having a negative impact on the market, and it will take longer for those areas to recover.

Sellers in a hot spot have more negotiating power today than they have had in years, and we’ve seen a resurgence in multiple offers on some properties. But buyers are still hesitant to overpay, and we rarely see escalation clauses accompany those multiple offers. Buyers who are used to having their way may find it a lot tougher to drive a hard bargain in some areas. As we have noted many times before, market conditions are “hyper-local,” and careful and thorough research is required to evaluate any individual property before making a buying or selling decision.

Absorption Rate by Property Type

The following tables track absorption rate by property type, comparing the rates in the just-completed month to the rates in the same month of the previous year. The absorption rate is a measure of the health of the market, and tracks the percentage of homes that were on the market during the given month and in the given price range that went under contract. [The formula is # Contracts/(# Contracts + # Available).] An example: The absorption rate for detached homes priced $500,000-$749,999 in February 2012 was 28.6%, indicating that more than a quarter of the homes on the market for this category of homes went under contract in February. That compares to a rate of 22.5% in February 2011, and the increase means the market was better in 2012 for that type of home. If the absorption rate was less in 2012 than in 2011, we have put the more recent absorption rate in red. This month there was improvement for 14 of the 18 individual price categories.

September 2011 Interest Rates

  • The overall absorption rate for condos and co-ops for February was 26.1%, an increase from the 17.7% rate in February 2011.
  • The absorption rate for condos across all price ranges is more balanced in DC than anywhere else in the region.

Absorption Rates Attached HomesABSORPTION RATES

  • The overall absorption rate for attached homes for February was 31.2%, an increase from the 22.8% rate in February 2011.
  • Again, look at the balance across most price ranges.


Absorbtion Rates Detached HomesABSORPTION RATES

  • February 2012’s absorption rate for detached homes was 21.5%, a slight increase from 21.4% in February 2011.
  • And the balance among the price ranges is evident here as well.