Ron Rush knows the housing market could cool someday, but the Fairfax County real estate agent hasn't seen it happening yet.
An example: A four-bedroom Colonial near Fair Oaks mall that Rush sold in 1997 for $203,000 brought $330,000 in 2002; last month, it went under contract after being listed at $449,900.
"January to May was the intensest, if that is a word, market I've ever seen in my 35 years in the business," said Rush, who works in the Fair Oaks office of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.
More recently, he said, the market has been a bit less frenetic. "It's still a good market, just not as intense as the spring."
In Alexandria, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent Nancy Tompkins said demand and prices remain strong. She got a contract yesterday on an Old Town house listed for $1.6 million that drew multiple bids. Five years ago, the four-bedroom, 31/2-bath house sold for $720,000.
Any signs the market is turning? "We don't see it," Tompkins said. And what about a pricing bubble about to burst? "Oh, heavens no, not in this area."
National statistics released this week show the market is still cooking despite some predictions that rising interest rates and unsustainable prices could bring the years-long climb to an end.
Yesterday the Commerce Department said new-home sales in June were down from the record set in May. June's seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.33 million sales was 0.8 percent below the revised May estimate of 1.34 million but 11 percent above a year earlier.
Locally, the market for new-home sales also remains brisk, builders say. Eakin/Youngentob Associates Inc. of Arlington sold out 374 townhouses in the Fallsgrove development in Rockville this spring, a year and a half ahead of schedule. A three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot townhouse model that sold for $275,000 three years ago just went for $525,000.
On Monday, the National Association of Realtors said June sales of previously owned homes broke May's record with a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.95 million units. June's pace was 2.1 percent higher than that in May and 17.4 percent higher than in June 2003.
Many economists had expected home sales to slacken significantly because of rising mortgage interest rates in April and May and because of concern that prices are outpacing inflation.
For example, Merrill Lynch & Co. and Lehman Brothers Inc. economists had predicted this week that June new-home sales would dip about 7 percent.
There's no consensus among economists on what could happen later this year and beyond.
Some say the nation is in a housing bubble and prices are too high by as much as 20 percent. "The fact that there has been an unprecedented run-up in home prices over the past eight years creates the possibility for an unprecedented decline in the years ahead," Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote in a recent report.
Others say talk of a bubble is rash. Robert P. Curran, senior director of Fitch Ratings Ltd. and its primary analyst of the housing industry, said concerns about bubbles and rapidly rising mortgage rates appear to be overstated.
"People have been calling the peak for five or six years, and it just hasn't happened," Curran said.
David F. Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, said: "I firmly believe that current price levels are sustainable, i.e., supported by fundamentals rather than by raw speculation virtually everywhere.
"Economic [and] job market conditions are improving in most places, and history shows that house prices don't fall in the absence of severe economic dislocations."
May was particularly hot, analysts say, because buyers grabbed low mortgage rates before they increased.
By June 20, rates on 30-year loans were up to an average 6.32 percent in anticipation of the Federal Reserve's expected vote to raise overnight interest rates on June 30. Since the vote, though, rates have unexpectedly fallen, to below 6 percent as of last week, the lowest in three months. Some economists say the drop probably is prompting more potential buyers to take the plunge, but they suspect that most people have jumped by now.
"The Federal Reserve will undoubtedly raise interest rates further," said Lawrence Yun, a senior economist at the National Association of Realtors. "In the next six months to a year, we see mortgage rates close to 7 percent and at that point, the home-buying activity will ease a bit."
Some economists, however, continue to say they believe the market has already turned.
The resale market "held up a little better in June than anticipated," senior economist Drew Matus of Lehman Brothers said Monday, "but the party is ending."
Yesterday, Matus said June's slight drop in new-home sales "was not the decline we were expecting. It was a surprisingly robust number given the huge number we saw in May."
But, he said, "I still think we're seeing the last holdouts who wanted to buy homes moving into the housing market. Over time, we'll see mortgage rates increase. That will lead to a decline in housing affordability, and that decline will crimp overall housing activity."
Matus cited as evidence a report last week from the Commerce Department of a steep drop in June housing starts and building permits. Starts dropped 8.5 percent from May to the lowest level in just over a year. Permits, which reflect builder confidence in future sales, fell 8.2 percent, the biggest monthly decline since 1994.
After hearing those numbers last week, Matus predicted: "This is, I think, the long-awaited start of the slowdown in the housing market."
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in congressional testimony last week that June's unexpected drop in housing starts and permits wasn't "a cause for concern." Greenspan, who described the nation's economy as going through a "soft patch," said construction activity would rebound.
Frank E. Nothaft, chief economist for Freddie Mac, noted that he still expects records this year for new-home sales, existing-home sales and construction starts because of the strong first five months. But he and others have predicted a return to more normal sales numbers later in the year.
"Before we say the housing boom is over, I prefer to see two or three months of housing data all pointing in the same direction," Nothaft said. "We haven't seen that yet."
Locally, said George Mason University regional economist Stephen S. Fuller: "The party's definitely not over, not with 82,000 new jobs so far this year."
He said that "there is enormous pent-up demand here" that will take years to meet.
If the market does slow, he said, "I don't think our builders will notice because they're so busy."