Although we’ve avoided the dramatic roller-coaster swings experienced in many parts of the country, there’s no denying that the local real estate market — and, by association, lending — has suffered for several years.
But there are some signs that may be turning around.
Historically-low lending rates have spurred a flurry of lending activity.And although much of that activity is existing homeowners looking to save some cash, area bankers and real estate agents say there are signs the housing market may be on the mend.
“It’s been slow, but it’s picking up for us,” Jan Ingle of Ingle Real Estate said this week. “We’ve got four pending (sales) right now … that’s a good number … it’s starting to gradually pick up.”
Ingle, a veteran of the local market, says that the general slow-down in the economy over the past two-plus years made buyers nervous to make a commitment to a new home.
“The last two years people have been scared they’re going to lose their jobs … in the last six months or so people are starting to loosen up,” he said.
Deb Smith, an assistant vice president and mortgage loan consultant at First Merchants Bank, Portland, also says she’s seen a spike in new mortgage activity since the spring.
“You’re seeing a lot of refinances, and actually I think I’ve seen an increase in (home sales),” Smith said. “I guess I was pleasantly surprised to see it. I would say possibly here in the area some people are going back to work that were laid off.”
Kathy Carpenter, branch manager and mortgage lender at the Portland Banking Center, First Bank of Berne, concurs.
“Rates are very low right now. We’ve seeing a lot of refinances. Purchases … have picked up a little, but a lot of refinances,” said Carpenter. “I just think it’s an uncertain time. A lot of people are laid off … a lot of people are having a lot of trouble qualifying for loans … but it’s going to get better.”
The two banks are offering rates ranging from 3.5 percent (15 years) up to 4.25 percent for a 30-year term.
Both Carpenter and Smith recommend that anyone interested in a mortgage or refinance should call and talk to a mortgage loan expert.
“We used to say that if you could save a (percentage point on the mortgage) it would be worth it (to refinance),” says Carpenter. “But now we like to look closer at the situation.”
Smith says that in general, a longer amount of time left on a mortgage and a higher balance will make refinancing pay off.
“It’s possible if you have a small balance and a short term … it won’t pay you to (refinance). Pick up the phone … and they can calculate for you whether it’s going to pay you to refinance,” says Smith.
Stockton Real Estate owner Steve Stockton, who has been in property sales since 1988, has also seen a slight upturn in business, but is a bit more cautious than Ingle and Smith.
“It’s pretty slow right now. Everybody is looking for good deals because they’re watching sheriff’s sales and seeing the prices being paid … and that’s what’s making it kinda slow,” says Stockton.
He adds that the sheer volume of homes for sale — both through foreclosure and individual sales — has depressed the market. Although he declines to name a specific figure, Stockton does estimate home values have dropped more than 20 percent in Jay County since the slowdown began in the fall of 2008.
“It has been a little busier over the last two months. April and May are usually the two busiest months, but July and August were probably better. It’s positive. It’s not what I would call a big turnaround, but looking better,” Stockton says.