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In ‘affordable’ Prince William County, household incomes on the rise

By M.J. McAteer,

Prince William County had reason to crow recently when 2010 Census data showed that, for the first time, its median household income topped that of white-collar enclave Montgomery County, $93,000 to $89,000. For a jurisdiction usually described, sometimes with a whiff of condescension, as “affordable,” that statistic had to be sweet. But that doesn’t mean that “affordable” no longer applies to Prince William — or that the county doesn’t proudly embrace the adjective.

“Our housing values are more competitive than other Northern Virginia locales,” says Steven A. Solomon, Prince William’s finance director, adding that he thinks they are a significant factor in the rise of household incomes in the county.

Ashley Leigh, an agent with Linton Hall Realtors, characterizes the county as a “value market” in which “buyers get more house for the dollar.” For example, the median sales price in Montgomery in August was $532,992; in Prince William, it was about half that, $277,500. In the neighboring Northern Virginia jurisdictions of Loudoun and Fairfax counties, the median sales figures were also substantially higher than in Prince William, $385,000 and $420,000, respectively. According to Solomon, property taxes on average are 31 percent lower in his county than in other Northern Virginia jurisdictions.

The result is that “houses priced well in showable condition are selling” in Prince William, Leigh says. His most recent sale as of this writing was a mid-size colonial in Manassas for $360,000.

According to the latest figures released by the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS), the median sales price in Prince William was up 4.72 percent, to $277,500, in August, compared with a year ago. The region’s overall median sales price, meanwhile, was flat in the same period.

“We are on the upswing, but not as dramatic as we would like,” says Evelyn Golden, an agent with Prudential Carruthers; her most recent sale was a $280,000 condominium in Belmont Bay near Occoquan.

Golden says that she is seeing fewer foreclosures lately but that she still frequently handles short sales, especially in Dale City, in the eastern part of the county. John L. Heithaus, chief marketing officer for MRIS, mentions Catlett and Dumfries as other Prince William localities that continue to have high rates of foreclosures and short sales.

All three jurisdictions have many houses that fall at the lower end of the price scale, while western areas of the county tend to have much higher average values because of luxury developments such as Victory Lakes in Bristow, Dominion Valley in Haymarket and Lake Manassas in Gainesville. Countywide, foreclosures and short sales still account for 25 to 30 percent of the county’s housing sales.

While that percentage might sound high, it is a vast improvement from 2008 and 2009, when Prince William was hit harder than any other Northern Virginia jurisdiction by the mortgage crisis. The county had undergone a building boom just before the bust, so it had lots of inventory. It also had more than its share of homeowners defaulting on subprime mortgages. At one point, in 2007, the county had 6,500 properties listed for sale, 844 of them foreclosures.

“We saw the market go down deep and pretty quickly,” says John McClain, a senior fellow and deputy director at George Mason’s Center for Regional Analysis. In December 2005, the median sales price in Prince William had been $405,000, he says; by February 2009, it was $171,000. A silver-lining scenario resulted: In September 2008, investors, attracted by the fire-sale prices, gobbled up more than 1,100 Prince William properties. The Washington Post reported that one townhouse assessed at $273,100 sold for $43,500.

The situation “is getting a whole lot better now,” McClain says. As of early September, Prince William had about 1,000 foreclosures and is on track this year to have about half the number it had in 2010. According to MRIS, the county had 1,500 houses listed for sale in August. Solomon estimates that Prince William has about a three-month inventory of homes. “That is considered on the brisk side,” he says.

But it’s not so brisk that builders are putting up houses on spec. “We’re at a 35- to 40-year low” on housing starts, Heithaus says.

Van Metre Homes is taking a typically cautious approach. Danny Faulkner, the home builder’s general sales manager, says that his company will be erecting a model home at Bull Run Golf Club in Haymarket this fall but that houses for the 26 lots it owns there won’t be built until they are pre-sold. The estate homes will be priced in the mid-$800,000s.

Leigh, the Linton Hall agent, expects that the market for such homes will remain soft and that prices will continue to come down. He anticipates that any new construction in the county will be in the below-$500,000 range. Solomon concurs, saying that “the lower end of the price scale is hot.”

That fits the county’s demographic. The average age of Prince William residents is 32, and the county is heavily populated by young families who are willing to put up with sometimes-arduous commutes along interstates 95 and 66 in exchange for bigger houses and well-regarded schools.

But Heithaus is cautious about making sweeping statements about the state of real estate in any jurisdiction. Although the housing situation seems to have stabilized in Prince William, he says that stricter lending rules, higher down payments, rules of supply and demand, and instability in the mortgage and financial sector all could exert a negative influence on the now-improving market. “A snapshot,” he says, “is only good at the moment.”

M.J. McAteer is a freelance writer.

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