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Real estate agents in Southern Maryland say they’re optimistic about where the region’s market is heading.

“There is some energy there,” said Steuart Bowling, Southern Maryland Association of Realtors director of technology and new business development. “It’s moving generally in the right direction.”

Bud Humbert, SMAR’s president-elect, who has been in the industry for 27 years, said Southern Maryland’s market is “slowly bouncing back” after hitting bottom in the mid-2000s. “Before ’05, nobody could do wrong,” Humbert said. “If you could breathe, you could get a loan.” Humbert said people didn’t realize the effects until the market collapsed and “hit everything real hard.” After that, he explained, banks started reworking and evaluating potential lenders.

“We’re still struggling,” Humbert concluded of Southern Maryland’s market, “but I would say the market is going up. It’s definitely not stagnant.”

The chief reason “we aren’t coming back as quickly as I think we should be” is the lack of inventory across the region, he said. When there is a limited market of houses, they aren’t on the market for long and sell rather quickly. He explained that in a good real estate market, houses would be on the market for an average of about 90 days. Anything more would mean there’s too much inventory. Anything less means there’s not enough, he said.

Bowling said he has noticed a decline in the average number of days a house is on the market. In the past, he said, it was “ideal” to get one sold and settled in 30 to 60 days.

“All three counties are moving in that direction,” Bowling said, citing April’s average for Calvert County at 128 days on the market, which he called “not too bad,” Charles County’s at 82 days and St. Mary’s at 106 days.

Dontae Carroll, Long & Foster regional manager for Southern Maryland and Prince George’s County who is also the manager of the Waldorf sales office, said that Charles County “has a healthy supply” of inventory $350,000 and higher, but “the sweet spot is between $150,000 and $300,000.” Carroll has been in the industry for 14 years and in Southern Maryland’s marketplace since 2004.

Carroll said “a very key metric” is months of supply because it “gives you some insight to how the market really is.”

Months of supply is calculated by dividing current inventory by current sales. That indicates how many months would be needed to sell the entire inventory available at the current rate of demand, according to a Long & Foster report. Carroll said a six-month supply of inventory is “generally considered a normal market.”

In April, there was a supply of 5.3 months available in Charles County, compared to 7.7 months of supply available in April 2012, according to a Long & Foster Market Minute report for the county.

A similar report for St. Mary’s County shows there was 6.3 months of supply available in April versus 9.2 months of supply available in April 2012. Calvert County’s report shows there was 8.1 months of supply available in April, compared to 8.8 months of supply in April 2012.

“We need more inventory,” said Judy Szynborski, an agent with The McNelis Group LLC in Solomons who has been in the industry since 1988. “What’s out there isn’t enough.”

Szynborski said that in her experience, people want a standard sell “and they’re being snatched up.” She said the problem is that most of the market consists of foreclosures and short sales that are sold “as is” and may need work.

“What is still out there needs to be revamped,” but it’s usually not worth the buyer’s investment if they can buy a newly constructed home for the same price as one that needs repair and renovation, she said.

Szynborski said that those types of units are best left for investors. “When people are willing to invest in real estate, that should be an indicator to everybody” that the market is on the right track because “they feel it’s a safe investment,” she said.

Buyer’s market? Seller’s market?

The real estate market is “good for both parties” right now, Szynborski said.

For sellers, Bowling explained, the market is in a place where they’re receiving about 90 to 95 percent of their asking price on a unit. “That has been trending in the right direction lately,” he said, explaining that in 2010 in Calvert, for example, sellers could expect to see a house sell for about 80 percent of its original asking price.

In April in Calvert County, the selling-price-to-original-list-price ratio was 92.2 percent, according to RealEstate Business Intelligence, a Metropolitan Regional Information Systems company that tracks monthly market statistics.

For St. Mary’s County, the RBI data for April show that the ratio was 92.5 percent. In Charles County in April, the RBI data ratio was 96 percent.

The selling-price-to-original-list-price ratio Southern Marylanders are seeing, Bowling said, still has “negotiating room.” The two prices aren’t “so far apart that people aren’t willing to make a deal,” he said.

The average selling price for a residential unit also increased in all three Southern Maryland counties in 2012 over the average selling price for the same type of homes in 2011. In Calvert, there was a minimal increase from 2011 to 2012 of 0.47 percent, compared to St. Mary’s and Charles, whose increases were 4.21 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively, according to RBI year-end market statistics.

Interest rates are at historic lows, giving buyers greater buying power, said Connie Fitzgerald, the top-producing agent with RE/MAX 100 in St. Mary’s County. The average interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage is between 3.25 and 3.5 percent.

According to a graph detailing interest rates over the last 200 years from Eddie Logan, branch manager and mortgage loan officer for PrimeLending in Owings, current interest rates of up to 3.5 percent are as low as they were in 1958.

According to other data from Logan, the payment for an average home is about the same as 30 years ago because of the low interest rates. For example, for a $246,800 home in February with a 3.5 percent interest rate, the monthly payment would be about $1,115, which the data show is usually less than the current rental rates of about $1,350 a month.

“It’s absolutely the time for first-time homebuyers to jump into the marketplace,” Carroll said.

Fitzgerald said people who are thinking about buying should buy now before the interest rates increase, which Szynborski said could occur soon. Szynborski said the adjustment may be mild and a little at a time, but it will happen.

“Knowing that’s in the future,” Szynborski said, “drives people to get serious about buying. Real buyers are making decisions. If they’re not ready to go, they’re gonna lose out.”

Sometimes it’s ‘survival of the fittest’

“In the market’s heyday, a lot of people came into the real estate market,” said Billy Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Realty and Auctioneers in St. Mary’s County. Then, when the country went into the recession and the housing market collapsed, he said, “a lot of people couldn’t afford to stay” in the business and had to look for other employment. “It was really survival of the fittest,” he said.

Humbert said, “The Realtors who were able to stick it out are doing really well.” He said SMAR is about 250 to 300 members lighter “than we were before in the booming market. But our numbers are increasing.”

“I’m very lucky,” said Billy Fitzgerald, who is also chairman of SMAR’s commercial and industrial committee. He added that he’s had “a very good career” in Southern Maryland over the last 40 years in the residential and commercial market.

Connie Fitzgerald, who said she’s been in the marketplace for about nine years, said, “I always stay busy.” She said she was busy even after the market fell.

“The market is really good for me,” she said, explaining that she had 70 transactions in 2012 and is on target to have 93 this year.

“It’s about being a business professional, honest, a good communicator with your clients, knowing the market and being able to adapt to changes in the marketplace,” Connie Fitzgerald said of her success in real estate. A positive mindset, she said, is also helpful to her success because it “helps navigate through the challenges in the marketplace.”

Billy Fitzgerald said that part of his success in surviving the marketplace has been learning to work smarter rather than harder. Real estate agents learned to use the technology available to them, like the Internet, he explained.

“Realtors don’t have to put in as many hours to serve a client,” he said.

ascott@somdnews.com