Signs of Recovery?

Glimmers of optimism for the region's single-family home market

First, some good news: after more than 36 months of losses, the downward pressure on Clark County home prices has finally begun to ease somewhat, according to several brokers contacted by the VBJ last week.

Now, the bad news.

Many of those real estate professionals say it will take years before the region's home market approaches anything near the steady price appreciation in the late 1990s, much less that of the boom times of the early and mid-2000s.

"I see a lengthy period of price instability while the market continues to absorb excess inventory," said Lynn Krogseng, a broker in the Vancouver office of Keller Williams Realty.

Still, realtors like Krogseng pointed to an encouraging sign: despite worries that the April 30 expiration of a popular tax credit for first-time homebuyers would erase any recent gains in the nation's real estate market, local realtors contacted by the VBJ last week have not reported a steep drop-off in activity – at least, not yet.

However, the region's battered real estate market will still be hard-pressed to match the surge in activity seen during the last month of the tax credit.

In April, home sales in Clark County jumped 36.8 percent compared to a year ago, according to a report compiled by Mike Lamb, an associate broker at Windermere Real Estate in Vancouver.

"The tax credit did what it was intended to do. It got the housing recovery started," Krogseng said. "The economy may just be strong enough to keep the market going."

Vancouver realtor Ellen Hartzell pointed to two improving residential real estate indicators – unemployment and inventory – as cause for guarded optimism.

Last month, Clark County's unemployment rate declined to 13.7 percent after months of steady increases. Meanwhile, excess housing inventory in April approached a three-year low, according to Regional Multiple Listing Service data.

"I really think we've turned a corner," said Dave Dumas, also a broker at Keller Williams in Vancouver. "We are finally on the verge of a housing recovery."

Traditionally-strong neighborhood real estate markets are already beginning to rebound, with Hazel Dell, Fisher's Landing and Felida leading the pack, according to Krogseng. "They were the first to suffer steep price declines and it looks like they are the first to show signs of price recovery," she said.

However, a growing number of foreclosed and distressed properties, as well as a tight credit picture for buyers looking to upgrade to bigger homes, signaled a tough road ahead for the region's real estate market.

Dumas estimated that up to 30 percent of active listings in Clark County were for distressed properties.

Meanwhile, Hartzell reported some homebuyers were still finding it difficult to secure financing for deals involving "upper tier" properties – those listed above $500,000.

Tight credit isn't the only drag on the region's housing market, according to Hartzell. "People are fearful, they are scared," she said. "They are worried about their job security and those worries affect some of their decision making."

As for another worry, affecting homeowners and policymakers alike – that of a second wave of foreclosures crashing down on the real estate market – Krogseng, at least, tried to keep the negative thoughts at bay.

"I might be a Pollyanna," Krogseng said. "But I really believe that most people want to honor their commitments. I believe they want to stay in their homes."