PULLMAN, Wash. — Home sales throughout Washington during the first quarter of 2001 surged 10.4 percent compared to the opening quarter of 2000, according to a report prepared by the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University. And, according to housing affordability statistics, it was a great time for renters to become homeowners in nine of the state’s 39 counties.

A total of 26,980 resale housing transactions took pace between January and March, traditionally a time of fairly slow housing market activity, said Glenn Crellin, WCRER director. Credited with overcoming concerns about impending economic weakness were the winter sunshine (a positive by-product of the drought) and mortgage interest rates that were somewhat lower than a year ago.

The statistics, produced with the Washington Association of Realtors, reflected a continued strong overall market. “Existing home sales in the first quarter were 2,500 units higher than any other opening quarter since we began the series in 1994,” said Crellin.

“Most urban housing markets shared in the improvement,” says Cheryl Ferrier, a Bellingham real estate agent and 2001 WAR president. “National statistics indicate housing markets are strong despite economic warning signals, and Washington is no different.”

All but one of Washington’s 11 urban counties reported sales activity higher than last year, led by a 16.1-percent jump in Thurston County. Yakima — the only urban county not to report a year-to-year increase — was unchanged. Clark County increased 4.4 percent, the second slowest urban market. Many of Washington’s small rural counties experienced significant percentage changes from a year ago — some up, some down, with the swings primarily due to limited numbers of sales during the first quarter.

Statewide median sales prices increased, but the rate of price increases slowed to only 0.8 percent. Among the state’s major population centers, only Yakima County experienced a lower median price. But the Tri-Cities market experienced a 9.8-percent jump in median price, attributed to a new wave of engineers arriving to help with the Hanford cleanup, said Crellin.

“Stable home prices, lower interest rates and continued income gains provided the best news — that housing affordability continued to improve,” he said. The typical family in Washington could afford the median-price home and could even afford a more expensive home. WCRER uses the Housing Affordability Index first produced by the National Association of Realtors to measure the ability of a middle-income family to afford the typical home in their local market. An index above 100 indicates the typical family could purchase a representative home. The all-buyer index of 124.3 indicates Washington residents have an income cushion of roughly 24 percent — greater than last quarter or last year.

For households hoping to purchase a first home in Washington, the first-time buyer index, which assumes a lower purchase price and a significantly lower income because it includes single-person households as well as families, stood at 74.0, indicating that it is still very difficult to become a homeowner.

“Rarely is the first-time buyer index about 100, but this quarter nine counties offer real opportunities for renters to become homeowners,” said Crellin. Those counties are Asotin, Benton, Grant, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Spokane and Wahkiakum. In Wahkiakum, in fact, first-time affordability is at 171.0, far ahead of second-place Lewis County.

WCRER and WAR have produced such statistics since early 1994, timing each quarterly release to coincide with wire releases of existing home sales by state and median-home prices by metropolitan area from the NAR.

For more information, contact Crellin at 800/835-9683, crellin@wsu.edu. A “Housing Market Snapshot” for the first quarter of 2001 showing statistics by county for home resales, building permits, median price, affordability index and first-time affordability is available on the WCRER Web site at www.cbe.wsu.edu/~wcrer.

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