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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2009

Does uptick in area signal a turnaround?

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

REAL ESTATE agent Patrick Lindsey thought his job was done when he found buyers for the nearly $1 million house in tony Ottawa Hills.

But then the appraisal came in $200,000 below one obtained two years earlier.

The sellers agreed to drop the price.

But yet another hitch arose when the buyers lender demanded 30 percent of the purchase price as a down payment instead of the originally agreed-upon 20 percent.

They said Ottawa Hills is considered a distressed area, Mr. Lindsey recalled, frustration seeping into his voice.

Such was the lot of agents for high-end homes in 2008.

Year s end brought a ray of sunshine for local sellers and agents who had watched sales and prices of existing single-family homes continue a downtrend that accelerated after the Sept. 15 collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a Wall Street meltdown.

The inventory of unsold homes dropped 6 percent across northwest Ohio by Dec. 31 from a year earlier, to 7,575. The property backlog was at its lowest in nearly three years.

In another hopeful development, sales across the border, in Monroe County, ticked up nearly 1 percent to 1,182 last year from 1,171 in 2007, the Association of Realtors there said.

Yet homeowners hoping for a quick sale were usually disappointed.

Forty-three percent of houses that sold in December in northwest Ohio were on the block for at least four months.

That was up from 40 percent in the same month in 2007 and from 36 percent the year before. Among the toughest sales: houses priced at $250,000 and up.

The inventory is starting to go down, and that s a good indicator for us, observed Mary Ann Coleman, president-elect of the Toledo Board of Realtors.

Still, she is unsure if the change signals the start of a recovery.

Sales in metro Toledo and surrounding areas in Ohio slipped 13 percent to 6,451 last year, and average prices fell 10 percent to $111,000 from $123,000 in 2007. The figures are based on reports filed with the Toledo Board of Realtors multiple-listing service by affiliated agents in the following counties: Lucas, Wood, Fulton, Ottawa, Sandusky, Seneca, Hancock, Henry, Defiance, Williams, Putnam, and Paulding.

Since 2006, when the real estate market began to sour, sales have plunged 26 percent and average prices are down 17 percent.

Lucas County, including Toledo and the upscale suburbs of Sylvania, Monclova Township, and Springfield Township, accounted for 71 percent of sales in the area last year. The average price there was $106,000, or 11 percent lower than in 2007. Sales in the county slipped 9 percent.

Despite a slight increase in sales in neighboring Monroe County, which includes the Toledo suburb of Bedford Township, the average price plunged 19 percent last year to $131,000 from $162,000 the year before.

More closely tracked by industry analysts are median prices, meaning half of houses sold for more, half for less.

In Monroe, the median fell to $122,000 from $150,000, the trade group there said.

Annual figures for Lucas County and northwest Ohio aren t yet available, according to officials at the Toledo Board of Realtors.

Depressed prices across the region, however, stem from a large number of repossessed homes being sold at steep discounts by mortgage-holders, agents said.

Repossessions helped send the median price of a single-family home sold in northwest Ohio in December to a startling $67,000.

In Monroe, asking prices are down 20 percent from last year at this time, said Kim Sachs, president of the Association of Realtors there. And few buyers are getting asking prices.

Buyers are seeing bargains, said Mr. Sachs, of First Realty GMAC, Monroe. They know they can bid lower and are getting the houses cheaper.

One customer, who was transferred out of Monroe by his employer in recent months, was forced to accept a bid of $88,000 for the house he had bought for $132,000 a few years ago. Because the homeowner s company has a policy of buying homes in relocations, the loss was spread around, Mr. Sachs said.

The higher-end homes aren t selling, he said. This is partly responsible for a near collapse of new-home construction, the agent added.

It is tough said a Toledo agent with a dozen high-end listings, including two million-dollar homes.

Twenty-one homes priced at $1 million or more were for sale in northwest Ohio Dec. 31, according to the Board of Realtors. The number of such listings was the highest in 2 years. Yet sales are rare; just two $1 million houses changed hands in 2008, and nine sold over the past three years.

And sellers with far less valuable properties found the going tough last year. Only 29 homes priced at $250,000 and higher, out of 454 total up for sale, sold in December, the Realtors Board reported.

Properties in that price category represented 7 percent of homes sold in 2008 but accounted for 9 percent of the unsold homes at the end of the year.

However, that was an improvement over Dec. 31, 2007, when homes priced at $250,000 and up were 11 percent of the inventory.

Meanwhile, houses and condos priced at $50,000 or less many of them foreclosures continue to move.

They accounted for 37 percent of December sales across northwest Ohio.

Difficulty selling higher-end homes stems, in part, from a limited pool of buyers in the Toledo area, agents said.

The farther you get up into the pyramid, the narrower the buyer range is, said Mr. Lindsey, broker at ReMax Executives agency in Perrysburg.

The couple buying the Ottawa Hills home closed on the property after taking out a second loan to cover the additional down payment, he explained.

Often, Mr. Lindsey added, buyers planning to spend close to $1 million prefer to build rather than buy an existing home.

Some high-end homes on the market are in foreclosure, and that can complicate a sale.

Such is the case with a 5,000-square-foot house on Brookwoode Road in Fort Meigs Township that Mr. Lindsey is trying to sell. Priced at $669,000, the house is just two years old. We had an offer early, he said. But by the time the mortgage-holder, which foreclosed on the property, was ready to talk, the buyer walked away.

The health of the local real estate market remains fragile, conceded Ms. Coleman, of the Toledo Board of Realtors. Toledo s economy, including the highest big-city unemployment rate in the state, is the main culprit, she said.

Lenders are cautious, often seeking additional documentation about borrowers income even when they are pre-approved for mortgage financing, she said.

But with interest rates dipping to 5 percent, It s a fantastic time to purchase houses, added the industry executive, who is an agent with Welles-Bowen Realtors.

Contact Gary T. Pakulski at:gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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