Southern California home sales rose at their fastest pace in at least 16 years in April as buyers faced rising interest rates and still red-hot prices, which set records in six counties.
Sales of homes and condominiums rose 7.3% to 32,916 last month as the median price -- the point at which half the homes sold for more and half for less -- increased more than 20% from a year earlier in each of the region's six major counties, DataQuick Information Systems Inc. reported Wednesday.
It was the busiest April since DataQuick began keeping records in 1988.
In Orange County, the region's most expensive market, the median sales price surpassed the half-million mark for the first time, to $523,000, up 30.1% from 2003. In Riverside County, the median price closed above $300,000 for the first time, at $308,000, up 28.3%.
"You watch all this with growing astonishment," said John Karevoll, a DataQuick analyst.
He said that prices should continue to surge over the next three months as a historically low level of homes for sale and the prospect of further rate increases send more potential buyers into the market. "There are a whole lot of people who want to get in before rates change."
In Los Angeles County, which accounts for one-third of all Southland sales, the median price jumped 27.7% to $387,000. That came on a 5.8% drop in sales to 10,749.
Some Realtors said there were signs that the market might be cooling, if only slightly, particularly for properties above $500,000.
"Homes that in April sold in three days are now sitting on the market a few weeks," said Carla McKendry, with Re/Max in Yorba Linda. "With the slight uptick in rates, we're seeing more inventory. I'm telling my clients that things are starting to cool."
Indeed, an index of mortgage applications fell 12% last week as home purchases nationwide slowed for the first time in more than a month and refinancings dropped to the lowest level since early January, hurt by rising interest rates. The declines came as the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage exceeded 6% for a fourth consecutive week.
The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage last week was 6.21%, up from a range of 5.38% to 5.59% in March, according to Freddie Mac, the nation's second-largest funder of mortgages.
In another sign the market may be slowing, at least nationally, Fannie Mae, the largest U.S. mortgage financier, on Wednesday pared its 2004 forecast for home-loan volume by 11% to $2.29 trillion because of the rate increase. That would still make 2004 the third-largest year ever for home loan volume.
The massive run-up in Southland home prices in recent years has fueled concern about a real estate bubble, but many experts believe the market is relatively stable in part because of a stronger economy. A number of key warning indicators -- foreclosure rates, the number of homes that sell more than once in a short period of time and the size of down payments -- are holding steady, Karevoll said.
Encino realtor Dan Drantch said he was seeing "a little bit of a cool-down" because of increased inventory on the market. But any home "in the 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 (hundred-thousand-dollar) range is still flying out the door. We are seeing some price reduction in the homes over $1 million," he said.
Yuda Ferscht trimmed the price on his four-bedroom Studio City home to $1.2 million after originally pricing it at $1.29 million. The home, now in escrow, took three weeks to sell.
"I believe this market is still very strong," said Ferscht, who built his home on a vacant lot a year ago.
In West Hills, Cecilia Theus and her husband sold their three-bedroom home in just one hour in March. The only problem was finding another one to buy. After getting outbid on three homes, they finally were able to take the profit from the $465,000 sale of their home and buy a $665,000 four-bedroom home in Westlake Village, where they have more room for their growing family.
"Honestly, I was just scared we'd never find anything," said Theus, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mother of a 1-year-old boy.
In the rest of the region in April:
* Ventura County's median home price rose 25.1% to $463,000 as sales fell 3.6% to 1,426.
* San Bernardino County's median climbed 23.8% to $229,999 on a 12% gain in sales to 3,954.
* San Diego County's median jumped 22.6% to $439,000 as sales surged 21.7% to 6,094.
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A hot month
The Southern California housing market continued its upward spiral in April, pushed by higher demand and tight supply.
*--* Median price # sold % in $1,000s % County 4/03 4/04 chg 4/03 4/04 chg Orange 4,607 4,577 -0.7% $402 $523 +30.1% Riv. 4,643 6,116 +31.7 $240 $308 +28.3% L.A. 11,407 10,749 -5.8 $303 $387 +27.7% Ventura 1,479 1,426 -3.6 $370 $463 +25.1% S.Brdo 3,531 3,954 +12.0 $185 $229 +23.8% S.Diego 5,008 6,094 +21.7 $358 $439 +22.6% So. Cal. 30,675 32,916 +7.3 $307 $386 +25.7%
Source: DataQuick Information Systems' DQNews.com