Real Estate Brokers Expect No Holiday Breather

Sales Stay Strong and Supplies Remain Low

KIRKLAND, Washington (Dec. 5, 2016) - Pending sales of homes hit an all-time high for the month of November according to the latest statistics from Northwest Multiple Listing Service. The report covering 23 counties around Washington state also shows the number of new listings added during the month plunged to the lowest level in 11 months, prompting MLS leaders to predict a busy winter for residential real estate as buyers compete for the smallest inventory since March.

"Last year's holiday season ended up being the best time to sell a home around King County as sellers took the winter months off, but buyers remained persistent. The supply of homes for sale hit a post-recession low, and so far, this year is mirroring last winter's trends," remarked Northwest MLS director Robert Wasser, owner/broker at Prospera Real Estate in Seattle.

Figures for November show a 13.2 percent drop in inventory of single family homes and condominiums, a 9.4 percent gain in pending sales, a 31.3 percent spike in closed sales, and an 11 percent increase in prices compared to the same month a year ago.

At month-end, there was only 1.69 months of supply system-wide, believed to be a new low. For the 4-county Puget Sound region there is only 1.22 months of supply, with King County having the lowest level at under a month (0.96).

Pending sales (mutually accepted offers) totaled 8,217, and eclipsed the number of new listings (5,779) by 2,438 units. That imbalance depleted total inventory, dropping the number of active listings to 13,303, down 13.2 percent from a year ago.

"November's pending sales for the four-county area of King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap were the highest since 2005. There were 44 percent more pendings than new listings," noted J. Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate, who described market activity as a mini power surge. "Every time interest rates increase 0.5 percent we see these surges because buyers become anxious about increasing rates - but on a historical basis rates are still amazing," he remarked.

John Deely, vice chairman of the Northwest MLS board, said the Seattle residential real estate market is not taking time off for an end-of-year breather. "The seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready, willing and able buyers continues to purchase available inventory. This imbalance in supply and demand continues to fuel multiple offers and drive prices upward," said Deely, the principal managing broker at Coldwell Banker Bain in Seattle. Well-paying jobs in the tech sector are fueling demand, with "the increase in equity and tick up in interest rates enticing more sellers to the market."

George Moorhead, another member of the MLS board, echoed those sentiments. "We have seen the market pick up significant speed since the mild slowing during the summer months." He cited NAR reports that the Puget Sound area is 73,180 units short of demand, calling it a staggering number.

"Like the last two years we expect strong sales to continue through December, then taper off in January, only to pick back up mid-February with another flurry of aggressive buyers," Moorhead continued. He also believes an uptick in interest rates will driver buyers into the market even harder, with inventory likely to plunge even lower.

The median price on last month's closed sales of single family homes and condominiums area-wide was $342,000, up 11 percent from the year-ago figure of $308,000. August was the only other month this year with year-over-year double-digit appreciation for prices area-wide.

Thirteen counties in the Northwest MLS service area reported double-digit price increases last month compared to 12 months ago. Prices in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties jumped between 14.4 and 15.3 percent, but the largest spikes were in Okanogan (up 41.4 percent) and Jefferson (up 39.5 percent) counties. Last month's overall median price for single family homes and condos that sold was down about 2 percent from this year's high of $350,000 for sales that closed in June, July and August.

Prices for single family homes (excluding condos) rose 10.9 percent from a year ago to $350,500. King County reported the highest median price for single family homes at $550,000 (up 10 percent year-over-year).

Condo prices reflected more modest price hikes, perhaps a reflection of depleted inventory (down 18 percent) that is dragging down sales. Pending sales fell nearly 1.9 percent from a year ago. Last month's median selling price area-wide was $280,000, about 5.7 percent higher than a year ago. In King County, which accounted for more than six of every 10 condo sales, year-over-year prices jumped more than $30,000 -- from $298,500 to $328,844 (up about 10.2 percent).

"Seattle continues to defy all forecasts and now has the distinction of being the hottest market with the fastest-rising prices in the nation," said Mike Grady, commenting the latest home price index from S&P Case-Shiller. "We believe the market will continue to be extremely active through the winter and beyond, although the Fed's expected interest rate hike may affect this somewhat and provide some relief to buyers."

Even with the much-anticipated increase in interest rates, Grady said he does not expect much leveling off of home prices or activity. Expectations of an easing of mortgage underwriting stringencies by the new Administration will result in additional buyers entering the market, which Grady believes "will add fuel to the fire. We anticipate being very busy through 2017."

Other brokers agreed.

"Overall, the market continues to be frenzy hot on a seasonality basis, as we're seeing the same positive momentum in the Puget Sound real estate market as last year," stated Scott, adding, "We'll be entering 2017 with an extremely severe inventory shortage that is going to lead us into a huge price appreciation boost after the first of the year."

"Looking ahead to 2017, the Seattle market will continue to perform well, even with the expected interest rate increase," stated OB Jacobi, president of Windermere Real Estate. "The regional economy is in full stride and this will continue to create increased demand for housing across the board," he added. He also said he expects price growth to cool somewhat as inventory levels rise modestly, but he believes "2017 should be another banner year for the housing market."

"This market engenders confidence and high expectations by sellers as they continue to command center stage," remarked Dick Beeson, principal managing broker at RE/MAX Professionals in Tacoma.

"Inventory levels were supposed to increase by this time of year, yet stubbornly, would-be sellers remain on the sidelines, so buyers will continue to struggle to find a home and compete with other buyers through most, if not all of 2017," added Beeson, a member of the MLS board of directors.

Beeson also commented on the "hottest market" label from Case-Shiller. "It sounds like an enviable position, but it brings its own set of problems and issues," he noted. Lengthy times to obtain appraisals due to the limited number of appraisers, low appraisals, buyers being forced to pay cash for the difference between appraised value and the sales price, sellers refusing to make repairs on their property, lenders requiring repairs to be done prior to closing, and multiple offers were among concerns he listed.

Industry-watchers say conditions are ripe for sustained activity through the holidays, citing historically low interest rates, motivated sellers, fewer players (less competition), faster closings (fewer transactions to process) and the appeal of year-end tax deductions are motivators.

Gary O'Leyar, broker/owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Signature Properties, described the current market as "one of the most extreme I've seen in 42 years of working in the Greater Seattle area." Although there may be a public perception that brokers are "having a heyday" he said it's actually one of the hardest markets he and fellow brokers have encountered. One listing may generate multiple offers, but at the end of the day there is only one sale. "Along with buyers who are so tested by this market are the brokers who partner with them to work through this rugged gauntlet to secure a successful sale," he noted.

Beeson also commented on the current market challenges, saying "even in a hot market sellers and buyers need the guidance of an experienced broker to navigate the waters." For sellers, he said, finding a buyer is like the tip of an iceberg - it's easily seen. "However," he explained, "helping a buyer find the right home and winning in a multiple-offer situation, helping sellers choose the right offer, helping both parties close the sale are all under the surface and require a knowledgeable, experienced broker to avoid crashing against a failed sale."

Northwest Multiple Listing Service, owned by its member real estate firms, is the largest full-service MLS in the Northwest. Its membership of nearly 2,100 member offices includes more than 25,000 real estate professionals. The organization, based in Kirkland, Wash., currently serves 23 counties in Washington state.

Statistical Summary By Counties
Market Activity Summary and 4-County Puget Sound Region Pending Sales (PDF)