Local real estate market 'hot,' but inventory still low

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WINCHESTER — If you ask local real estate agents how the regional housing market is doing, you may get some different answers.

Standing outside a house for sale in eastern Frederick County last week, Katt Eaton, who is affiliated with city-based ERA OakCrest Realty, said the market is “so hot right now.”

A house she plans to list for sale in Shawneeland in western Frederick County is already getting inquiries from prospective buyers even before it hits the market. “They’re stalking this place,” Eaton said.

But other real estate professionals expressed frustration. They say the market isn’t taking off in a way that justifies a good economy.

“There’s just not much on the market,” one agent said at an open house at a residence that’s for sale in Winchester. “We could really use more listings.”

Low inventory has been a problem in the region recently.

On Friday, there were 476 active listings in Winchester and Frederick County and 64 in Clarke County.

Mike Cooper, principal real estate broker for the Cornerstone Business Group in Frederick County, said those numbers include “to be built” homes that don’t exist yet. The actual number of existing homes on the market in Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties on Friday was 368. Cooper considers about 550 listings to be healthy.

Low inventory is bound to pinch some real estate professionals, Cooper said. The problem is exacerbated by higher listing prices that are attracting agents from Northern Virginia.

“We’ve had a flood of agents come in,” Cooper said.

When those agents pick up local listings, they bring with them their preferred lenders, inspectors and contractors, Cooper said. “The business is not getting into the hands of local folks.”

Factors fueling the low inventory include not enough new homes under construction and available housing stock that doesn’t meet the needs of a growing population.

Even with a low inventory, how fast a home sells largely depends on its price, condition and location.

Houses priced at more than $400,000 can sit on the market for months. So can properties in poor condition.

“The most competitive market,” according to Cooper, is for move-in ready homes priced between $160,000 and $230,000 — the kind of property that’s in the price range for many first-time home buyers and people earning an average wage. Those houses are usually snatched up quickly.

“That’s a huge group of people trying to buy,” he said.

Eaton said some homes in that price range only last about 12 hours on the market before an offer is made and accepted.

While buyers are excited by low interest rates, the lack of inventory can be frustrating for them, too. That can push people who work in the Winchester area to look for housing elsewhere.

Lorie Noakes, executive director of the Blue Ridge Housing Network in Front Royal, said first-time home buyers and average wage earners tend to be the most affected by the low inventory because they’re often competing with real estate investors seeking to buy properties in the same price range that they will turn around and rent.

“Unless you can afford $250,000 or more, it’s really hard,” Noakes said, adding that a person would need to earn about $63,000 per year to afford that.

Noakes said people can still buy a home cheaper than they can rent one, as long as they are ready to make an offer.

“It’s just finding a place that’s in decent shape,” she said.