Pricey homes a tough sell still

December 04, 2013 10:34 am

Sondra Rosholt and Jeff Clark of John J. Howard and Associates are among local real estate brokers who have witnessed almost an 18 percent increase in some home prices over the last year in Union County. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
Sondra Rosholt and Jeff Clark of John J. Howard and Associates are among local real estate brokers who have witnessed almost an 18 percent increase in some home prices over the last year in Union County. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)

Opinions differ on how much of a rebound there is in the local real estate market 

The residential real estate market in Union, Wallowa and Baker counties seems to be on an upswing, though there are different opinions about how robust the rebound is.

Reports from Regional Multiple Listing Service in Portland say that average and median home prices have increased lately in the three counties. Some local realtors agree business has improved. But despite the RMLS figures, they also say homes in the upper price ranges remain a tough sell.

The listing service said October was a strong month for Union County realtors. Twenty-seven pending sales for the month showed an increase of 42 percent over September’s 19. That’s the highest pending sales number since RMLS started recording in 2007.

A striking feature in the report was the increase in average and median sales price since 2012. RMLS said the average sale price in Union County so far this year is $181,200, up almost 18 percent from this time in 2012.

The median — the number at the middle of the overall price range — increased 9.2 percent, from $142,900 to $156,000.

Anna Goodman, owner-broker at Century 21 Real Estate in La Grande, said she views the reported jump in average and median sales price with caution. She said it’s possible the figures may be skewed by just a few big local sales.

On the other hand, Goodman said the Union County market does appear to be improving some.

“I have had agents say there are more buyers. I’ve definitely felt like it’s a better year for our agents,” she said.

Goodman said it may be that the Union County market, in its slow way, is starting to catch up with others that have reported a rebound from the days of the recession.

“I know Portland and Bend have come back up. Usually we lag behind, so it could be we’re coming up now too,” she said.

In Baker County, RMLS reported a 34 percent rise in the average sale prices, and a 26 percent jump in the median price. The listing service said the average sale price for a home in Baker County to date in 2013 was $163,600, compared to $123,100 in the first 10 months of 2012.

The median price rose to $125,500, from $99,000 in 2012. In October of this year in Baker County, 15 sales closed. In October of 2012, 17 sales were closed.

Andrew Bryan, owner-broker at Baker City Realty, said he too believes a small number of sales of higher priced homes may have caused a spike in the RMLS average sale price and median price figure. He said that can easily happen in a small market.

“In the last four to six months, we’ve seen a handful of residential properties selling in the $200,000 to $300,000 range,” Bryan said.

He said there are indications that Baker County’s real estate market is coming up. Agents are talking to customers who have had luck selling homes in other markets and want to re-locate. Some of those customers are showing interest in higher-priced property.

On the other hand, Oregon land use laws tend to contribute to cost increases, and can drive business away. Bryan said people doing their research find they can get better deals on rural-residential properties in places like Caldwell, Idaho.

“The land use laws support our quality of life, but they make it more expensive,” he said.

As for people selling their Baker County homes, those in the lower end of the price spectrum continue to do better than those with high-end models.

“A home that was $85,000 last year is still $85,000 this year, but one that was $225,000 last year is $200,000 now,” Bryan said.

John J. Howard, whose La Grande-based real estate agency maintains an office in Baker City, said he hasn’t noted an especially big rebound in sales in Baker County. The higher the price, the harder a home is to sell, he said.

“The market at $225,000 and up is sluggish. There are a few sales going, but over $300,000 is pretty tough,” he said.

For Wallowa County, RMLS is reporting a significant jump in residential average sale price. The listing service said the average sale price over the first 10 months of 2013 was $198,100, up almost 13 percent from the comparable time in 2012.

But two Wallowa County realtors said they questioned the numbers. One of those was Bill Bushlen of General Land Office in Joseph. Though Bushlen could not immediately put his hands on the local statistics he compiles himself, he said he isn’t as optimistic as RMLS.

“Off the top of my head, I’d say that number is about $20,000 too high,” he said.

Claresse O’Connor of Timberline Realty also said she questions the average sale price number, and believes that combining all sales prices would give a better picture of what’s happening in Wallowa County.

“Our market is not just residential. We sell a little bit of everything,” she said.

Still, O’Connor said business at her agency has been better recently, “moving right along.”  She said lower interest rates have given home sales a boost.

On the downside, O’Connor said, it remains difficult to get financing for a house.

“It’s still like pulling teeth to get a bank to make a loan,” she said.

O’Connor also said she thinks people selling homes in Wallowa County are getting “a little more realistic” about prices. Unfortunately, that equates to losses for some.

“We’re seeing quite a few people take less (for their home) than what they’ve got into it,” she said.

But there may be hope yet for the region’s high-end real estate market. Ted Kramer, a broker at John J. Howard and Associates in La Grande, said he has lately noticed a few customers willing to talk about properties priced in the $200,000-$300,000 range.

He said that was almost unheard of in 2012, his first year in the real estate business.

“If those customers are coming back into the market, the big question is ‘Why?’” he said.