The housing market here is staggering under the impact of high interest rates, which have begun to top 14 percent in recent weeks. Many potential buyers, unable to carry the added costs, have simply withdrawn from the market.
Montgomery County broker Paul V. Flaherty Jr. calls the current resale market "pathetic." His own business is off 50 percent this year, a direct result of high mortgage rates, Flaherty said.
"Listings that took 30 days to sell now take 45 to 60 days," he said. "We need some stability in the mortgage rate, which has been bouncing up and down."
Other brokers tend to agree -- with varying degrees of intensity. William C. Stuart III, president of Stuart & Maury, said there was some demand left over from the previous period of high interest rates, February through May.
"September was our best September ever in terms of volume of sales," said Stuart, whose company operates in Northwest Washington and Montgomery County. Buyers, he insisted, are adjusting to market conditions by settling for less expensive houses.
Carlton Jones, president of Jones, Wells & Associates, described the current market as "depressing." His sales in September were down by an estimated 30 percent, he said.
Broker Howard Rooks, president of Mount Vernon Realty Inc., said that while he was experiencing a "seasonal slowdown," the dollar volume of sales this year was ahead of last year's. In some instances, sellers are taking back financing for one or more years and are giving interested buyers terms belfow market rates, he said.
Rooks said that many buyers are looking for favorable FHA or VA loan assumptions in the resale market.
E.A. Baker, head of Town & Country Properties, one of the largest real estate companies in the area, said: "We've charted eight rate changes in the past eight months. The market needs stability to create a confident mood for both buyers and sellers.
"It seems that rates over 13 1/2 percent are unacceptable to most buyers. We had strong sales a few months ago when rates were between 11 1/2 and 13 1/2 percent. Both new and resale markets are flat now and sales are generally slower in Maryland than in Virginia."
One bright note in an otherwise dismal picture was the decline in the discount points that must be paid by sellers of homes sold with FHA or VA financing. In the past week those discount points have dropped from a high range of 10 to 12 to 4 to 6. A point is equal to one percent of the mortgage.
Because the FHA-VA rate ceiling is now aat 13 percent, that financing requires a premium from sellers in terms of discount points to make the loans saleable on the secondary market.
Although large-volume builders and some condominium developers are still offering long-term, below-market financing terms, sales of new homes have also slackened in recent weeks. Most people who buy newly built dwellings have to sell existing homes first, those buyers tend to stay put when mortgage rates skyrocket. First-time buyers account for 10 to 20 percent of the new-home sales.
Traffic at many of the close to 500 new-home subdivisions in the area has slacked off in recent weeks, and builders say mortgage rates are to blame. But there is some hope in the industry that the current slowdown in sales -- and the lessened demand for mortgage money in this traditionally slow fall season -- could lead to lower rates before the end of the year.
Sales in some close-in locations have been surprising, however. Broker Flaherty, who is a partner with William Avery in the development of 13 traditional homes in the Capitol View area of Silver Spring, said that six sales contracts have been signed for the $106,000 houses -- "and only three of them are under roof."
Charles Coleman, president of Urban Land Resources Inc., said that 150 converted condos have been sold in the first of two 300-unit high-rise buildings at the Towers in Westchester Park in Prince George's County. Prices range from $40,000 to $101,000.
Sales of new and existing houses have not yet fallen off as much as in the early months of this year, when mortgage rates rose above 14 percent. However, additional increases in mortgage rates or lack of a substantial prospect for rate softening before the end of this year could further depress sales.
It adds up to a market for buyers -- those who can find sellers eager to make a deal. They may be able to find prices, terms and concessions that are unobtainable when the market is more active.