Sunday, January 23, 2005

Home sales on upswing

Staff Writer, The Charlotte Observer

Housing sales in much of the Catawba Valley rose for the third consecutive year in 2004, with sales of existing homes climbing 9 percent over 2003.

Across most of the Hickory metro area, 2,391 homes sold in 2004, compared with 2,188 the year before, according to data from the N.C. Association of Realtors and the Multiple Listing Service of Catawba Valley Inc. Housing starts, which had been on the wane for several years, appear on pace to hold steady or increase over 2003 figures.

"The business is still really good," said Ronnie Thompson, a broker with Thompson Realty in Valdese who also serves as president of the N.C. Association of Realtors.

Although mid-priced houses were slower to move -- mostly a product, agents say, of setbacks in the area's manufacturing-heavy economy, sales have been brisk at the lower and upper end of the market, agents say.

Retirees and other transplants are flocking to the burgeoning Lake James resort community, for example.

And, enticed by favorable interest rates, first-time buyers like Evelyn Lingo are keeping the starter-home market moving, agents say.

An Army retiree who lived for years in military housing, Lingo bought her first house about a year ago in Burke County. Lingo likes the pace of N.C. life -- slower and safer, she said, than her home state of Florida -- and the availability of affordable homes.

"That's one reason I bought here," she said.

Rapid, not explosive growth

Not that the Unifour's economic woes haven't hit housing.In 1999, when the Hickory economy was peaking, 2,017 homes sold in the Catawba Valley MLS area -- a region made up of Caldwell and Catawba counties, Alexander County's Wittenburg Township and a small strip of eastern Burke County. By 2001, sales had dropped to 1,776.

Activity picked up slightly the following year, and 2003 brought a 22 percent increase in existing-home sales across the Hickory area.

Housing starts, which hit a three-year slide after 2000, appear to be rebounding.

Census figures show that 1,419 permits for single family homes were issued in the Unifour through November, the last month for which figures are available, compared with 1,504 for all of 2003.

Last year's 9 percent increase in existing home sales is typical for North Carolina, said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte.

And the Hickory area hasn't typically seen a boom-or-bust housing market, said Guy Long, a developer with LA Properties.

Average home prices rose just over 2 percent in the Hickory area from the third quarter of 2003 through the third quarter of 2004, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight. That's compared to 3.42 percent in the Charlotte metro area.

Las Vegas, by contrast, topped the list at an average appreciation of nearly 42 percent.

"(Two percent) keeps the market moving along OK but doesn't get you hyped up," Long said. "We haven't exploded, just grown rapidly."

Low interest rates

Over the past year, Long saw homes in the lower ranges -- roughly $100,000-$150,000 -- move well as renters cashed in on low interest rates to become owners, he said.

First-time buyer Lingo did.

After years of living on military bases and renting, Lingo bought in a new subdivision off N.C. 126 in Burke County. At about $113,000 for about 1,500 square feet -- and a sweeping view of the South Mountains -- she's pretty happy, she said. "It was a good deal," she said.

Harder to sell, Realtors association President Thompson said, have been mid-priced homes -- step-up homes for those wanting more space or the types of houses that usually sell to mid-level managers with strong salaries, he said.

The cutbacks of recent years have meant a slowdown in sales in those types of houses, he said. "When you lose middle management, that's a big loss," Thompson said.

But for the past few years, higher-end homes, particularly those in resort-type communities, have remained hot.

Lake James, for one, is humming with the sound of saws and cement trucks.

Forecasters predict that the lake area will be one of the most rapidly developing spots in the Catawba Valley this decade.

On Brentwood Place in the East Shores development, John Anthony and a crew are finishing a 2,200-square-foot cottage-style house with a cypress exterior, custom-made ironwork and mahogany doors, granite countertops, an 18-foot vaulted living room ceiling, 34 cable connections and a massive back deck.

A $375,000 price tag puts the house well above typical prices for the Hickory area, where the average selling price in December was $133,474, according to MLS data.

But to buyers from some parts of the country, that's a steal, said Anthony, who manages construction projects for Lake James Real Estate. He's known some to pay in cash.

Lots are flying off the shelves, he said, as retirees, empty-nesters and others flock to the lake.

"They can't open them up fast enough," he said. "People are writing checks."


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