Optimism, tinged with caution, hits home market

The real estate market is receiving more good news than it's had in a long time.

Mortgage rates have declined markedly, from 17.5 percent for a Federal Housing Administration-Veterans Administration loan in September 1981 to 12.5 percent a month ago.

House prices are considered low. In 1982, they rose by only 1.4 percent, the slowest increase in a long time, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). And in September, a month which typically sees a decline, home prices dropped by $800. Potential buyers also have a wide choice of houses in a glutted market.

Real estate brokers are counting on all these factors to whip up housing sales and lay the groundwork for a solid recovery in the battered industry.

While optimism abounds, it is nonetheless of a cautious nature. Many realtors are not willing to say that they've seen the end of the slow market of the past four years, and they voice concern over a ballooning federal government deficit.

Even so, current indications point to a moderate growth in housing sales. The Commerce Department reported a 23 percent jump in the sale of new, single-family homes in September, compared to the same period a year ago - good news to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

Last year was the worst year on record for the sale of new homes. And William Young of the NAHB doesn't expect next year to be much better. While more than 800,000 new houses were sold in 1977, by 1981 the figure was down to 436,000. Projections for 1983 put new-house sales at 475,000.

Housing starts have suffered equally. In 1977, more than 2 million new houses were built. This year, Mr. Young estimates the figure at 1.05 million. In 1983, however, the NAHB anticipates about 1.36 million starts.

Mr. Young says the 23-percent increase in new-house sales reported by the Commerce Department for September, coming in a slow season for home sales, actually translates into about 2,000 units.

The NAHB spokesman concedes, however, that while current sales figures are ''nothing to write home about,'' they do represent a ''dramatic'' improvement over the past couple of years.

Housing sales figures are up in a number of areas. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board's Multiple Listing Service, which encompasses 54 towns in the greater-Boston area, recorded 643 sales in October, a 73 percent increase over the previous year's figure of 370.

Craig Foster of Foster & Foster in Acton, Mass., says his firm sold about $8. 5 million worth of residential real estate in October, while the figure for the same month in 1981 was $5.5 million. He notes, however, that the pickup began just before the significant decline in rates.

''I attribute this to two factors,'' Mr. Foster comments. ''There is the resignation of the consumer to the fact that higher interest rates are probably here to stay, and also to the rate drop in September and October.''

Mr. Foster expects continued growth throughout 1983, predicting that interest rates will remain low while some new mortgage options, such as a pledged-account mortgage, in which a large sum is placed in a pledged account to reduce the rate of interest, can bring the rate down to a low of 9 1/2 percent. Thus, the possibility of buying a home will bewithin the reach of a greater number of consumers, whether they are first-time buyers or homeowners who are trading up.

In Washington, D.C., Marcia Clopton, president of CBS Realty, reports a ''definite increase'' in housing sales that started about 7 weeks ago.

''In September, we did double the sales of the previous 6 to 7 months,'' she says. ''And in October, we doubled September.''

Sales are up 85 percent in November over the same month last year at Coldwell Banker Thorson, a Chicago real estate brokerage.Executive vice-president Paul Jacobson says also that while 500 buyers were contacting them each week in October, that figure has risen to 707 as of Nov. 12. Typically, he says, November is one of the firm's slowest months, but this year it tops the list in sales.

The National Association of Realtors, after witnessing a steady decline in resales over the past four years, is also buoyed by the outlook. While this year's annual resale rate stood at a low 1,820,000 in August, industry officials confidently expect to see a rise in the figures soon. In 1978, housing resales reached the 4 million mark.

''We have a long way to go,'' says William Adkinson of the NAR.

''There is no dramatic surge, but this is the first time in a long time we've had reason to be optimistic,'' he adds. ''We're confident lower interest rates will continue, and this is the most important factor in home sales.''

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