Falling House Prices Take Toll in Va. Suburbs

House values in Loudoun County suffered the worst drops in the region. The median price fell $43,000, or 8 percent, to $492,000.
House values in Loudoun County suffered the worst drops in the region. The median price fell $43,000, or 8 percent, to $492,000. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Housing prices declined across Northern Virginia last year, with the outer suburbs leading the drop.

The median sales price in Loudoun County plummeted 8 percent, the largest dip in the Washington region, while Prince William County prices fell 5 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis of government data on the sale of single-family houses and townhouses.

Overall, housing in the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William and in the city of Alexandria lost 2 percent of its value in 2007, falling to a median price of $485,000, from $495,000 in 2006. The median is the point at which half the sales prices were higher and half were lower.

The number of properties sold in those Virginia jurisdictions also tumbled, with 24,496 sales last year, down 26.8 percent from 33,449 in 2006.

Prices of condo units in Northern Virginia didn't budge a dollar in 2007, with the median of $305,000 the same as it was the year before.

"There are houses on the market sitting for six months or a year, because owners aren't willing to lower prices, there are too many to choose from, and because builders are still building more," Linda K. Beck, an agent with Lighthouse Realty in Leesburg, said of the market in Loudoun. She said she recently took a listing to sell a house at $140,000 less than what the owner owes on his mortgage.

But just as prices in the outer-ring suburbs fell, houses in Arlington, just across the Potomac from the District, gained 2.7 percent in 2007, the only Northern Virginia county to show a gain. There, median prices rose from $565,000 in 2006 to $580,000 last year, the highest in the Washington area. And a few more houses changed hands in 2007 than in 2006, 1,710 compared with 1,701. It was the only local jurisdiction in which more houses were sold last year than in 2006.

Alexandria's median price was almost as high, at $577,500, but was down almost 4 percent from $599,000 in 2006. Just fewer than 1,300 houses sold in 2007, compared with 1,647 the year before.

Fairfax County, the region's most populous jurisdiction, continued to lead the Washington area in number of housing sales, with 10,826 in 2007, about 2,100 fewer than the year before. Prices nosed down 1 percent, to $520,000 from $525,100 in 2006. In Loudoun, the median price of a house declined to $492,000 from $535,000 in 2006. Nearly a third fewer were sold, with sales dipping to 4,034 from just more than 6,000 in 2006.

Sales were also sluggish in Prince William, where 6,627 sold in 2007, compared with 11,151 the year before. The median price fell from $410,000 to $390,000.

Building and industry boomed in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the outer Virginia suburbs. But as companies such as AOL slashed jobs, many houses went up for sale and glutted the market, Beck said. Escalating gas prices are making commutes much more expensive. And many homeowners are finding themselves caught in the credit crunch as they are unable to refinance expensive subprime mortgages.

"If I had a crystal ball, I'd pick a lottery number and run," Beck said. "I hope it changes and changes quickly. But I don't see that happening, however, for at least a year."

Overall across the Washington region, the news was less gloomy. The median price of single-family houses and townhouses edged up a half-percent in 2007 to $420,000. Condo unit prices inched up 1 percent, to a median of $289,900.

As prices stagnated, the number of sales dropped. In 2006, 84,660 houses sold across the metropolitan area; last year, 26,000 fewer sold, a drop of almost a third. It was similar with condo units. In 2007, 15,282 units changed hands, about 5,000 fewer than in 2006.

In the Maryland suburbs, housing prices rose in 2007 but only slightly. The median price in the seven counties reviewed gained 1.4 percent, inching up to $374,000 from $369,000 in 2006. Condo units rose 1 percent, to $255,000 from $251,000.

At the same time, median house prices in the District rose by 6.7 percent, with the lowest-priced neighborhoods east of the Anacostia seeing the largest gains.

Throughout the region, there are "plenty of buyers out there, but they are very, very cautious that they are making the right decision," said Coldwell Banker real estate agent Jane Fairweather.

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