- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

Low interest rates helped drive housing sales in the D.C. area up 18 percent this year, shielding the local real estate market from an otherwise sluggish economy.

More than 11,000 homes were sold in the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs during the first three months of the year, compared with 9,600 sales during the comparable period in 2000, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a Rockville real estate research firm.

The figures are based on sales in the District, Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, and Fairfax and Arlington counties and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church in Northern Virginia.

"Interest rates are very affordable right now, and it's helping the market," says Dale E. Mattison, president-elect of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors and an associate broker for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.

The Federal Reserve Bank in April slashed key short-term interest rates to 4.5 percent from 5 percent, which helped lower the costs for many consumers who borrow money for home-equity loans.

Long-term rates, such as new 30-year fixed-term home mortgages, are also at historically low levels.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was 6.9 percent in March, down from 7 percent in February. It was 8.2 percent in March 2000.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says lower interest rates have helped push housing sales up nationwide. More than 5 million homes were sold in the United States in March, a 4.8 percent increase from February and 3.8 percent above sales in March 2000, NAR says.

"We don't expect every month to be as strong as March, but anything close to a 5 million sales pace is exceptionally strong. We'll be well within that range for the rest of the year," NAR President Richard A. Mendenhall said in a statement Friday.

In the D.C. area, the biggest gains have been in Maryland. In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, 5,024 homes have been sold this year, compared with 3,939 during the comparable period last year, a 27.5 percent jump.

Marj Rosner, a local sales manager for Long & Foster, says home buyers want to be in urban areas, such as Bethesda and downtown Washington.

"The closer you get to downtown, the stronger the activity," she says.

Even the region's apartment market is hot, according to Delta Associates, an Alexandria real estate research firm. The local vacancy rate is 1.1 percent, one of the lowest in the nation, according to Mark S. Teather, a Delta analyst.

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