- - Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Washington-area real estate market really got cranked up in March, with sellers finding plenty of eager buyers and modest competition from other sellers.

Monthly sales contracts surged over 9,000 for only the second time since 2006. The only other time in the past six years sales exceeded 9,000 was April 2010, when buyers were scrambling to buy properties before the federal homebuyer tax credits expired at the end of that month.

Even without tax credits, buyers apparently are motivated by today’s low interest rates and the relatively healthy area economy. It also helps that home prices are still low compared to their 2006 peak.

Those lower prices may not continue for long. The lower inventory and higher sales are causing buyers to compete with one another again. Realtors report that multiple offers are becoming common in some areas. That kind of buyer competition is what pushes prices up.

Buyers have to compete more than they have in a long while because there are fewer homes from which to choose. The inventory of unsold homes on March 31 was 19,581. That is 22 percent lower than it was in March 2011.

That factor, along with the strong sales figures, is the reason sales chances hit an incredible 48 percent last month.

Sales chances are calculated by dividing a month’s sales figures by the inventory on the last day of the month, resulting in a percentage. A figure below 20 percent indicates a buyer’s market. Higher figures mean we’re in a balanced market or a seller’s market.

Chances were highest in Fairfax, Alexandria and Prince William. They were lowest in Anne Arundel and Charles.

Not surprisingly, homes sold more slowly in Anne Arundel and Charles than anywhere else in the region. When inventory is high and sales are low, homes dawdle on the market. But in Prince William County, where sales chances are low, homes sold in just 62 days - half the time it took to sell a home in Charles County.

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