News of a tumbling national housing market doesn't appear to be hitting home for York, Chester and Lancaster counties.
Despite falling home prices and alarming foreclosure rates around the nation, experts say local real estate markets remain strong, and total home sales are expected to once again set records by the end of the year.
Data released this week by Standard & Poor's shows home prices nationally have dropped 4.7 percent in the third quarter compared to one year ago amid a national housing crunch. But in York, Chester and Lancaster counties, the average price of homes on the market has grown 10.7 percent since last year to $214,067, according to the Piedmont Association of Realtors.
"It's not all doom and gloom," said Butch Brindel, CEO of the association. "I'd say our market is looking pretty healthy."
The Charlotte region is one of only five metropolitan areas experiencing an increase, with average home prices climbing 4.7 percent, according to Standard & Poor's.
Reports of a nationwide housing crisis have dominated headlines in recent months, as borrowers who couldn't afford to pay ballooning, adjustable rate subprime mortgages sparked an increase in national foreclosure rates
while home prices dropped and buyers backed away from the market. However, local markets have remained stable, and in some cases are growing.
"We're going to hit a billion (dollars in home sales) before the end of the year," Brindel said, noting last year's total of $909 million in sales for the tri-county area is the record.
"York County and Rock Hill's economy is continuing to grow because Charlotte continues to grow in this direction."
Brindel said homes are selling at 97.8 percent of the listing price, meaning sellers are getting what they want for their homes. Land prices are doubling, tripling and even quadrupling the original list price as buyers bid for coveted properties, he said.
While the number of homes sold so far in 2007 is slightly off pace from 2006, the amount of time homes sit on the market has only increased by one day. And in Rock Hill and Fort Mill, homes are selling faster than a year ago, Brindel said. He attributes growth in Charlotte for driving a housing boom still far outpacing sales records from only five years ago.
"If you're checking the temperature of the local market, we don't have a fever," Brindel said. "This area is going to grow, and we can't help it. We are not Chicken Little, and the sky is not falling."
Foreclosures hold steady
Clear skies remain in place on York County's foreclosure front, too. County master-in-equity court Judge Jack Kimball, who presides over all foreclosures in York County, said records from July 2006 to July 2007 reveal fewer homes were repossessed than the year before. The decline has continued this fall, with only about half the homes entering foreclosure actually being repossessed.
"We're ahead of the game a little bit," Kimball said recently. He noted some troubled borrowers have found help because the high rate of foreclosures in parts of the country have forced lenders to consider more repayment options instead of demanding immediate payment on notes.
Locally, many industry experts contend one potentially negative effect of the lending crunch is the misconception that it's a bad time to find a home loan. Builders and Realtors are saying many homebuyers have heard about sub-prime lending troubles and concluded they won't be approved for financing.
But that's not the case.
"Rates are great -- we have money to loan and we're looking for borrowers," said Tom Camp, President of S.C. Bank and Trust of the Piedmont.
In recent years, sub-prime lenders attracted marginally qualified borrowers with adjustable rate mortgages that increased over time. Camp said those lenders have tightened practices, which caused a "chilling effect" on the industry as some potential applicants have become skeptical of borrowing. But premium lenders haven't changed practices, he said, and are still offering low rates -- as low as 5.8 percent fixed rates -- to qualified borrowers.
"We're confident in lending money," he said. "It's still a good time to borrow."
Builders optimistic despite dip in permits
About the only portion of the housing industry slowed by recent woes are the large tract builders who rely on fast construction times and quick sales, said Barbara O'Connell, a spokeswoman for the York County Homebuilders Association and co-owner of O'Connell Signature Homes. She said tract builders who benefited from the lenient practices of sub-prime lenders are seeing a slowdown, but with so much growth in the Charlotte region even they haven't been hit too hard.
"When they started giving loans to people with bad credit, that hurt a little bit," she said. "But with new people moving in here all the time, it won't be a depressed market anytime soon."
Mike Vead, a regional planner with the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, said the number of single-family home building permits issued in the area dropped slightly from July through October compared to last year, but he doesn't foresee a building downturn.
"We're still seeing a significant amount of new home construction," he said. "This is still a pretty robust market."
McConnell said consumer confidence has suffered from the negative housing news, but her family business remains strong. She said her workers are "slammed" with new jobs.
"We're as busy as we've ever been," McConnell said. "Nobody's crying about not having any work to do. It really just isn't that gloomy."