The number of homes sold in Southern California stayed red-hot last month, surging 25% from a year earlier to their highest September level in 15 years, according to figures released Monday.
Sales and prices did generally take their regular, seasonal dip in September from August, and the real estate industry is watching closely to see whether the market follows normal trends and cools further as the year-end approaches. Many people opt to stay put before the holidays, noted Tom Carnahan, president of the real estate brokerage Carnahan & Associates in Woodland Hills.
But because there are still few houses up for sale to meet demand in most neighborhoods, the market "could stay its heated self as long as interest rates stay where they are" and don't climb higher, he said.
The median sales price in September for homes sold in a six-county region -- from San Diego to Ventura -- was $335,000, down 1% from a record high of $338,000 in August, DataQuick Information Systems reported.
That was up a sizzling 20% from a year earlier, when the median stood at $279,000. The median means half the houses sold for more than that price, and half sold for less.
Median prices climbed to new highs in Ventura County ($415,000) and Riverside County ($261,000), and the median in San Diego County ($390,000) tied a record high set in June, said DataQuick, which compiles the statistics from records of sales of new and existing houses and condominiums.
The median price in Los Angeles County last month was $336,000 -- down from $338,000 in August but up 25% from $269,000 in September 2002. The number of homes sold in the county totaled 11,395, down from 11,874 in August but a 22% jump from 9,362 a year earlier.
In Orange County, the median price in September was $431,000. That compared with $435,000 in August and was up 17% from $368,000 a year earlier. Orange County sales last month totaled 4,956, a drop from 5,511 in August but a 29% surge from 3,848 a year earlier.
Overall, the numbers sketched a housing market that remained exceptionally strong, with demand for single-family houses and condos far outpacing the limited supply of housing for sale. September marked the third straight month that sales in the region had a year-over-year jump of 20% or more.
"The agents are screaming for listings," said John Karevoll, an analyst at DataQuick.
The sales boom is being spurred mostly by relatively low mortgage rates, which remain below their levels of a year ago even though they have edged up in recent months. Indeed, fears that rates might climb higher have spurred more buyers and sellers to close deals in the last two months, pushing up the sales and pricing figures, real estate brokers and analysts said.
The average rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was 6.05% on Thursday, up from 5.95% the prior week but still below its level of 6.15% a year earlier, according to mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
The average rate on a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage was 5.36%. That was up from 5.26% the prior week but below the 5.56% in the same week of 2002.
Homes available for sale, meanwhile, have remained near historic lows, the California Assn. of Realtors said.
In August, the most recent month available, there was a scant 1.7 months of unsold inventory in Los Angeles County -- meaning it would take that long to sell the homes listed for sale at the current sales rate, according to the Realtors group. That ratio stood at 2.5 months a year ago.
In Orange County, the inventory ratio was only 1.2 months, down from 2.3 months a year ago.
Why are so few homes on the market when prices are at or near record highs?
One reason is that potential sellers, even if they expect to turn a profit on their current houses, don't want to pay high prices for new dwellings, said Leslie Appleton-Young, the Realtors group's chief economist.
"If you sell at a peak, you're going to be buying at a peak," she said.
Appleton-Young also noted that many homeowners took advantage of the low rates to refinance their existing mortgages, and now have no desire to move.
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Still going up
The Southern California housing market continued its upward spiral in September, pushed by higher demand and tight supply.
*--* # sold # sold % Med price (in % thousands) Area Sept.'02 Sept.'03 chg Sept.'02 Sept.'03 change Los Angeles 9,362 11,395 +22% $269 $336 +25% Orange 3,848 4,956 +29 368 431 +17 County Riverside 4,110 5,225 +27 215 261 +21 San 3,266 4,010 +23 168 199 +18 Bernardino San Diego 4,231 5,705 +35 346 390 +13 Ventura 1,399 1,522 +9 333 415 +25 So. 26,216 32,813 +25 279 335 +20 California
Source: DataQuick Information Systems