From the Record:
Two weeks after the Vermeulen family put their Woodcliff Lake home on the market this spring, they had a signed contract.
The Burghoffer family also sold their house, on Greenwood Lake in West Milford, this spring — but that sale took more than a year and a half.
As the two deals suggest, this spring’s housing market has been uneven, with some towns that are hot and some that are not. Overall, prices are up, but the number of sales is down from 2013, which was the healthiest spring since before the housing bust.
“There’s no question that home-buying activity is slower this year than last year,” said Jeffrey Otteau, a widely followed East Brunswick appraiser who tracks the market statewide. He said that from January through April, home sales were down about 10 percent statewide. (The New Jersey Association of Realtors reports a similar sales drop for Bergen and Passaic counties.)
The slowdown in activity surprised Otteau, who said, “I thought the momentum in 2013 was going to carry over to 2014.”
The spring market is an important bellwether for real estate because it’s traditionally the busiest time of year. Many people like to move in the summer, so their children can start at their new schools in September.
Even with the drop in sales, Otteau said prices are up statewide about 4.8 percent in the first quarter over the comparable period last year — and up a stronger 9.6 percent in Bergen County and 5.8 percent in Passaic.
A lot of real estate agents blame the cold, snowy winter for delaying the start of the spring market, which — despite its name — typically gets under way in February.
“It took sellers a lot longer than expected to get their homes ready for the spring market because of the long, harsh winter, so many sellers are just getting their homes on the market now,” said Ron Aiosa, a Coldwell Banker agent in Butler.
“You might get a delayed spring market,” said John Pordon, a Century 21 agent in Totowa. “The spring market might be in the summer.”
But Otteau said that other factors were at play this spring, including higher prices, which made homes less affordable; tight inventory, which gave buyers fewer choices; mortgage lending standards that remain strict, which have shut many potential buyers out of the market.
The market’s overall profile masks a patchwork — some towns are hot, agents say, and some are not. Buyers snap up properties in towns with lower property taxes, commuter-rail access to New York City or the highest-ranked school systems. A number of real estate agents say they’ve never been busier and that well-priced, well-maintained homes often attract multiple offers because there are not enough of them on the market.
“This has been my best spring since the crash in 2008,” said Rita Lutzer, a Re/Max agent in Saddle River, who sells a lot of homes in Ramsey.
“Once the warmer temperatures hit in March, activity went through the roof on listings and sales, especially in the price range of $300,000 to $450,000,” said Barbara Ostroth of Coldwell Banker in Oradell.
Other agents see a more subdued market.
“I just don’t think it’s as busy as it should be for this time of year,” said Margrit Vogler, a Coldwell Banker agent in Oradell. She sees a lot of activity in towns with lower property taxes, like Paramus, but less movement in others.
But those buyers have fewer choices this year. Inventory has been tight, especially of well-priced, well-maintained homes.
According to the New Jersey Association of Realtors, the supply of homes for sale in April was down 12.5 percent from a year earlier in Bergen and down 8.6 percent in Passaic. The reason: Homeowners are unwilling to list their homes because they can’t get the prices they need or want. In particular, homeowners who bought during the housing boom often owe more on their mortgage than the home is worth.
“They can’t sell their houses for a price high enough to pay off the existing mortgage and leave them with equity,” Otteau said.
Although the low supply has begun pushing up prices, buyers are wary of overpaying after seeing how earlier buyers were hurt in the recent housing boom and bust. Even with recent increases, property values in the region are still an average 20 percent below their peaks, according to Otteau and the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index — though Otteau said prices have recovered more in Bergen County than in the state as a whole.