While no one is declaring residential real estate sales are booming, for the first time in a very long time, they are trending upward in some areas of Middle Georgia.
Home sales in 2012 were better than 2011 and better than 2010, said Fickling & Co.s Guy Gunn, senior vice president of residential sales in Macon.
Weve had some improvement over the past couple of years, which is good to have things pointed in the right direction, Gunn said. But its not a bounce back by any means, but its the right direction.
Nationally, even though there was a slight dip in December, home sales have risen to their highest level in five years, according to a recent study. Total sales were 4.65 million, up 9.2 percent from 2011. But sales are still below what would be considered healthy, according to the story.
In the Bibb County area, annual home sales declined between 2006 and 2010, followed by two years of slow improvement, according to the Middle Georgia Multiple Listing Service, which predominately includes Bibb, Jones and Monroe counties, as well as a portion of outlying counties. Gunn supplied information from the MLS.
Sales were about 1,600 in 2010, 1,672 in 2011 and 1,793 in 2012, according to the report. In 2006 -- prior to the recession -- there were 2,602 sales.
Not surprisingly, the total amount homes sold for in 2012 -- $188 million -- was about half of the $373 million for 2006.
Historically low mortgage interest rates are not having a major effect on real estate sales, Gunn said.
If low rates would solve the housing problem, we wouldnt have a problem, he said. Rates certainly are making it easier to afford a home once buyers start looking, but I dont know if these rates have brought more people into the market.
The average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in 2012 was 3.66 percent, according to Freddie Macs website. In mid-2005 -- during the housing boom -- rates hovered around 5.5 percent.
On Thursday, Freddie Mac released the results of a survey that it said showed mortgage rates continuing to trend higher amid a growing economy led in part by the recovering housing market. The 30-year rate averaged 3.53 percent last week, up from the week before of 3.42 percent, the report stated.
The all-time record low for 30-year-fixed loans was set the week of Nov. 21, when it averaged 3.31 percent, according to the report.
I think people have come to believe that low rates will be with us for a while, Gunn said. Experience tells me that when rates start rising people will come out of the woodwork.
Getting a home loan in recent years has become more challenging for borrowers due to stricter banking regulations.
Bankers are still reluctant to lend money for spec homes, Gunn said. I think thats due to regulatory oversight as much as price concerns. I think prices in our area have stabilized, but it would be hard to prove that they have increased across the board. I think price recovery will be slow to moderate over the next several years.
New construction flares up in Houston County
While residential sales in Houston County have also been tracking upward for the most part the past few years, the big surprise in this area during 2012 is the interest in new homes.
Nearly 200 building permits were filed in unincorporated Houston County, with a value of $44.9 million. That was the largest number of permits and largest value in five years. Just a year earlier, 130 permits, valued at $30 million, were filed.
How does Elaine Lee, senior vice president of residential sales for Fickling & Co. in Warner Robins, explain this jump?
When people want to buy a new home, they are going to go get it at some point, Lee said. Weve got several different builders building in lots of different price points. ... So youve got folks wanting something new. Its been in such a decline over the last many, many years before this last year that I think people can only wait so long. There has been a pent up demand I believe.
Nationally, rising demand for homes has encouraged builders to increase construction. U.S. builders began work on homes in December at the fastest pace in four years.
Last weekend, the Fickling office in Warner Robins held a number of open houses at both newly constructed and existing homes, Lee said.
The new construction (homes were) slammed with people -- thats what the agents told me -- and the other agents who were at existing homes said the same thing. When you get six, seven, eight couples at an open house, you have a great open house. So activity is up.
The Bibb County area is not seeing a jump in new building permits for single-family homes. In 2012, 55 permits were issued in Bibb County, which were valued at $9.8 million. This was the lowest number, and lowest value, recorded in the past five years.
While the number of residential permits issued in Macon last year was 26, up from 20 in 2011, 10 of the permits in 2012 are for duplexes on Woolfolk Street in Fort Hill being built by Georgia Behavioral Health Services as housing for families who are homeless or disabled. The value of these 10 permits is about $519,000 of the total value of $2.3 million for new building permits issued in 2012.
The increased activity in new home sales in Houston County is encouraging to County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker.
We are ecstatic about it, he said, adding there are several reasons people are interested in buying homes in Houston County.
I think its the job opportunities that are still available in this county, Stalnaker said. I think one of the main forces, not only in the housing market, (is that) people want to come and be employed here because of the school system. Also, I think when people are retiring, they are retiring here whether they are civilian or military. They like the things that are offered here, and the quality of life here and the taxes here.
One of the most significant factors of the increase in new home sales, he said, is that when a new home is built, it has a larger impact on other businesses. It increases business for a number of construction folks such as electricians, plumbers and other sub-contractors. Also, new home buyers have to buy window coverings, paint, light fixtures and appliances, which adds to the local economy.
Stalnaker said hes grateful home values in the county have held fairly constant.
Weve had some loss in valuation the last couple of years, but not to the extent of some other counties, he said.
I tell people every day we are fortunate to be where were at -- not only in this county, but in Middle Georgia, Stalnaker said. There are many parts of the state that would love to change places with us.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.