Regional home sales are on the rise, approaching levels not seen since 2007 in the four-county Milwaukee area.
The rally is fueled by low prices, mortgage rates that remain at historic lows, and an economy inching toward recovery.
"We're on our way, I think, and hopefully the rest of the economy responds well," said Rick Bohmann, vice president and sales director of the Elmbrook-Wauwatosa office of Shorewest Realtors, 11622 W. North Ave.
Across the region, completed sales reached 12,757 through October on a year-to-date basis, the highest figure since 2007, according to Metro MLS, which tracks real estate sales. In October alone, the region saw 1,246 sales, the highest figure for the month since 2009.
"With the lower rates and housing prices having softened over the last few years, a lot of buyers are choosing to take advantage of that and purchasing their first or second home," Bohmann said.
The trend was particularly clear in October, when Bohmann's Shorewest office saw a 70 percent increase in business compared to one year earlier.
"That is just phenomenal," he said. "The market itself was up over 28 to 30 percent."
By community and statewide
Wauwatosa has seen sales rise 10.6 percent, to 438, for the first 10 months of 2012 over 2011.
In Brookfield and Elm Grove, year-to-date sales are up 42 percent, to 646, from last year to this.
The North Shore saw an increase of almost 32 percent, to 809 sales for the first 10 months.
On the South Side - St. Francis, Cudahy, South Milwaukee and Oak Creek - sales rose almost 26 percent, to 578 through October.
In the Southwest suburbs - Franklin, Geendale, Greenfield and Hales Corners - sales were up 21 percent, to 756.
The increase here is mirrored statewide, with year-to-date sales at 56,062 for the first 10 months of this year, higher than full-year figures for the previous four years, according to the Wisconsin Realtors Association.
A declining unemployment rate is the cornerstone of any housing market recovery. As the national rate has dropped, so has Wisconsin's. The state rate fell this month from 7.3 percent to 6.9 percent, as reported by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"We're seeing sales are definitely up, I would say about 23 percent," said Roger Mater, a broker who works out of the Brookfield office of Re/Max Realty 100, 400 N. Executive Drive, "but the values are still (available) - I believe we're still bouncing along the bottom."
Sales prices actually have risen "ever so slightly," Mater said. Median sales prices in the four-county region are up 6.8 percent from October a year ago to last month, rising from $155,000 to $165,000. But they are still well below the $193,900 figure of October 2008.
Val Barbatelli, who co-manages the Glendale office of Coldwell Banker, 6000 N. Port Washington Road, said her office of 83 agents is having a much better year than it has had recently, but says sales and signs of health in the real estate market vary widely.
"It really depends on where you are talking about. If you look at the statistics and the different communities and different counties, there's definitely a variation, a wide variation." Even month to month, conditions vary, she said.
Barbatelli, who said the North Shore is the office's "core market area," sees declining supply as starting to mitigate the buyer's advantage in this environment, toward a slightly more even buyer/seller balance.
But, "everybody needs listings, listings are down across the board," she said.
Because prices are still low, many people - especially those with high-end properties - who would like to sell but don't have to are waiting until the prices come back, she said.
In large measure, prices are held down by short sales and sales of homes by banks after foreclosure, which almost always go at huge discounts. These low values are factored into comparative value evaluations, so that a resident looking to sell will find that some surrounding homes have been going cheap, bringing the resident's list price down.
Mater cited a case of a bank or short-sale house in an exclusive subdivision listed at $250,000, with a house next door to it for sale at $999,000.
"The bank owned it and they don't want to own homes. They're in business to sell money - they're not in business to sell real estate," he said.
Bohmann said high-end homes have been moving, and because they go for high prices they have a distorting effect on average sales price figures, pushing it up artificially.
"It could be a false read, if you will, that, 'Oh, prices are going up.' Well, no. It just means that some of the higher-priced properties have been sold, because buyers can't ignore the value as it relates to interest rates, and they've made their choice to … buy that next house."
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