The median price of single-family houses in the Washington area last year held steady from 1989, while the number of homes sold fell to the lowest level since 1982, according to a study of the local real estate market.
"Given the times, I would say that is very good," said William Ellis, executive vice president of the realty firm of Shannon & Luchs Co.
The median price is the level at which half the houses cost more and half cost less.
The figures show that the median price of a home in the Washington area last year was $195,801, compared with $195,218 in 1989, according to the Rufus S. Lusk & Son Inc. real estate information service. The median price of a condominium rose 3 percent to $109,400 from $106,100 in 1989. At the same time, the total number of homes and condos sold plunged 19 percent to 59,925 last year from 73,781 in 1989.
The figures are fairly typical of a recessionary year in the real estate market, said Rufus Lusk, president of the realty information firm, which has been gathering data on the area real estate market since the 1930s.
It was the first period of flat median sale prices since the early 1980s -- the last time a recession hit the real estate market here.
"We have never had any situation like Texas where prices just collapsed," Lusk said.
But the rapid drop-off in sales has meant a painful readjustment for the local real estate industry. Since 1986, when the number of home sales peaked at 89,450, the figure has plunged 33 percent.
Lusk collects its data from public records in the District of Columbia and six surrounding counties. The figures do not include more-distant suburbs, such as Loudoun, Prince William, Anne Arundel or Howard counties.
But the Lusk statistics are regarded as more accurate than data culled from the Realtors' multiple listings services because the Lusk figures include sales of existing homes, new homes and homes sold by owners that have gone to settlement. Multiple Listing Service figures tend to include only existing homes sold by real estate agents.
The Lusk study yielded a few surprises -- a big jump in the median home price in Prince George's County, an unexpected increase in the median price of home in Fairfax Country last year despite falling sales and a drop in the median home price in the District and Montgomery County.
In Prince George's, the number of condos sold declined 17 percent, but the number of single-family homes sold fell only 8 percent -- the smallest decrease of any jurisdiction. And homes in Prince George's County showed the healthiest appreciation of any market. The median price of a single-family house, including town houses, rose 15 percent to $133,750.
Realtors said the increase was a testament to the underlying strength of the market for first-time buyers, who found plenty of affordable choices in Prince George's.
"There is some suggestion that properties in the county don't increase as much as in other counties," said Paul Fowler, executive vice president of the Prince George's Association of Realtors, "but that's a fallacy,"
In once-booming Fairfax, the number of single-family home sales, including town houses, fell 24 percent, while the number of condos sold dropped 28 percent.
Despite the plunge, the median price of homes rose 2 percent, to $224,650, although the median condo price fell 4 percent to $119,400. The increase in the single-family median price surprised some real estate industry observers, who had expected it to fall.
"The market in Northern Virginia has been hit harder than that in Montgomery County," said P. Wesley Foster Jr., president of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., the area's largest realty firm.
Experts speculated that the median price might have been boosted by the relatively large number of new homes sold in Fairfax County, which is a newer suburb than Montgomery. Despite the discounts that area home builders have offered recently, new homes tend to be more expensive than existing homes.
And, industry officials said, it is a testament to the creativity of sellers, who paid buyers' loan points, replaced roofs and met other seller demands in order not to lower their selling prices as much as they would otherwise have had to. Real estate agents said those maneuvers might have kept the median price from falling in Fairfax, as well as in the rest of the area.
"What happens is the price holds constant, but the value to the seller drops," said McLean broker Jim Warkentin.
In Montgomery, sales of single-family homes fell 17 percent, while sales of condos fell 18 percent. The median price of a single-family home fell 3 percent to $214,650, while the median price of a condo rose 8 percent to $107,450.
Marc McGee, general manager of Pardoe Real Estate Inc., speculated that part of the reason for the single-family median-price decline in Montgomery was that fewer homes priced more than $500,000 sold in the county last year compared with previous years.
If more homes sell at lower prices than high-priced homes, the median price would decline. "It doesn't necessarily mean that if you had a nice house in Kensington that it's worth 3 percent less," McGee said.
In the District, the number of single-family home sales fell 22 percent, while the number of condos sold dropped 26 percent. At the same time, the median price of a condo rose 13 percent to $96,450, while the median price of a single-family house in the District dropped 6 percent to $182,950.
"I think the problem is where sales are in our marketplace," said Don Denton, president of Dale Denton Real Estate Inc. He said his figures showed the proportion of sold homes priced more than $300,000 was smaller last year than in previous years.
Like realty executives from other areas, Denton noted that sales have picked up in recent weeks. His firm is selling District houses priced less than $300,000 "almost as fast as we can get them," while homes that cost more than $300,000 are still moving slowly.
"I think there are still some unrealistic expectations in that bracket," Denton said.