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Bucking the Trend, Md. House Prices Edge Up
Increase Is Mostly In Inner Counties

By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unlike their neighbors across the Potomac, home sellers in the Maryland suburbs saw the value of their properties rise in 2007, if only by a smidgen.

The median sales price of single-family houses and townhouses in seven Maryland counties gained 1.4 percent, inching up to $374,000 in 2007 from $369,000 in 2006, according to a Washington Post analysis of government sales data. Prices for condominium units rose 1 percent, to $255,000 from $251,000. (The median is the point at which half the sales prices were higher and half were lower.)

The counties closest to the District fared best, which was also the case in Northern Virginia, where house prices declined. "The closer in you live, the closer you're going to get to your asking price," said Dennis Melby, a Long & Foster real estate agent. "I think the high cost of gas is adding to that."

Long & Foster agent Ron Sitrin looks at it this way: "The farther outside the Beltway you go, the less rare land is. There is more of it to build on. So if you're in a community with 500 townhouses and 3 percent of them are for sale, it's hard to compete."

The median sales price for Montgomery County houses rose 4 percent, to $495,000 from $475,000, the highest price in suburban Maryland. And as in nearly all other jurisdictions in the Washington area, housing sales in the county slowed considerably in 2007, with 8,594 houses changing hands, down from 11,934 in 2006.

Overall, the slow market means sellers have to be willing to compromise. "In Bethesda, the sellers who are really getting offers have either priced their homes at a very low point or their house is just wonderful and in terrific condition, the kind of presentation that makes buyers go 'Oh, my God' when they walk in the front door," said Coldwell Banker agent Jane Fairweather.

For example, one of Fairweather's clients purchased a new house last year, made a number of upgrades and put it back on the market this year for the same price that he paid for it.

In Prince George's County, housing sales slowed sharply, falling by 44 percent, to 7,705 from 13,708 in 2006. Prices remained virtually flat, with the 2007 median price of $340,000 just $100 higher than the year before.

"Prince George's County near the District of Columbia seems to be getting hit disproportionately with foreclosures, and there is a tremendous oversupply of homes," Sitrin said.

Howard County fared similarly, with prices decreasing by 1.6 percent, declining to $400,500 from $407,000. In 2006, 4,163 houses were sold, while fewer than 3,000 sold last year.

The median sales price of Anne Arundel County houses dipped by $1,000, to $339,000. Farther south, in Charles County, median prices declined 1.5 percent to $325,000 from $329,900. But in neighboring Calvert County, prices rose by 2.2 percent, to $330,000 from $323,000. St. Mary's County had a 6 percent increase, to $308,350 from $290,000. (Figures for the seven Maryland counties include Frederick but not St. Mary's.)

Overall, across the Washington region, the price of single-family houses and townhouses edged up a half-percent in 2007 to a median of $420,000. Prices for condo units inched up 1 percent, to a median of $289,900.

As prices stagnated, the number of sales dropped. Last year, 58,509 houses sold, down 31 percent from the previous year. The trend was similar with condo units. In 2007, 15,282 units changed hands, down 25 percent from 2006.

In Northern Virginia, the median price of a single-family house or townhouse dipped 2 percent to $485,000. Arlington County alone saw a price increase. The median there rose 2.7 percent to $580,000, the highest in the metro area. Loudoun County houses lost 8 percent of their value.

"If I had a crystal ball, I'd pick a lottery number and run," said Loudoun County real estate agent Linda K. Beck, with Lighthouse Realty. "I hope it changes and changes quickly. But I don't see that happening, however, for at least a year."

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," Fairweather said.

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