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Decline in housing inventory drives prices

Posted 8/13/12

Though many home shoppers who assume they are still in a buyer’s market find it hard to believe, one of the sobering fundamentals shaping real estate this summer is shrinking inventory: The supply of houses for sale is down significantly in most areas compared with a year ago, sometimes dramatically so. And that is having important side impacts – raising prices and homeowners’ equity stakes, and reducing total sales.

In major metropolitan markets from the mid-Atlantic to the West Coast, the stock of homes listed for purchase is down by sometimes extraordinary amounts – 50 percent or more below year-ago levels in several areas of California, according to industry studies. In Washington, D.C., and its nearby suburbs, listings are down by 28 percent, reports Redfin, a national online realty brokerage. In Los Angeles, available inventory is 49 percent lower than it was last summer, San Diego by 53 percent. In Seattle, listings are off by 41 percent. According to the National Association of Realtors, total houses listed for sale across the country in June were 24 percent lower than a year earlier. The dearth of listings is often more intense in the lower- to mid-price ranges, less so in the upper brackets.

Peggy James, an agent with Erick & Co. of Exit Choice Realty in Prince William County, Va., says she gets calls “all the time” from buyers asking, “Where are all the new listings? Are you agents bluffing” – holding back? But the reality is that “there just haven’t been many” listings in some high-demand price categories lately, she says.

In Orange, Calif., Carlos Herrera, broker-owner of Casa Blanca Realtors, says “it’s really strange right now. We have many buyers but few sellers,” forcing purchasers to bid up prices on what’s available.

Just south of San Francisco, Redfin agent Brad Le says inventory in Silicon Valley is down so drastically – and demand so strong – that the bidding wars are spinning off the charts. “We’re not just talking about 10 or 15” offers, he says, “but sometimes 40 and 50.” Some buyers are inserting escalation clauses into their contracts to keep pace with counter-bids, and waiving financing contingencies, inspections and even agreeing to increase their down payments to counter any differences between the accepted sale price and the appraised value. One modest, 1,700-square-foot house recently was listed at $879,000. It drew more than 50 competing offers and sold to an all-cash buyer for $1.05 million in less than a month.

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