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First-quarter house sales climb in tri-county area

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The number of houses sold in Jefferson and Lewis counties during the normally quiet first quarter shot up 30 percent this year from 2011.

Residential properties sold by the 325 Realtors in the two counties increased from 167 last year to 218 from January through March. The median price of those homes went up 9 percent, from $119,000 to $129,950.

The sales are attributed partly to the influx of returning soldiers at Fort Drum, said Lance M. Evans, executive officer for the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors and the St. Lawrence County Board of Realtors. In the first quarter, Veterans Affairs home loans accounted for 79 of the sales, or 36 percent; last year, 43 VA loans were issued, for 26 percent of the sales.

Given the scarcity of apartments, more military families bought homes, Mr. Evans said. Low interest rates on mortgages have made it an opportune time for investment.

“Spouses that knew their soldiers were coming back maybe weren’t living here at the time, but they were looking for places to stay and ended up buying homes,” he said.

Real estate activity during the first quarter is typically slow compared with the summer, Mr. Evans said. But not this year, as house hunters started signing earlier than usual.

“Agents who are normally not real busy in November, December, January and February say they were busy during all of those months,” he said. “Usually there’s a lag time when buyers sign contracts for homes and make an investment. Most of the homes closed sales in March, which means people were looking at them a lot earlier.”

The roughly 200 members of the St. Lawrence Board of Realtors sold 99 houses at a median price of $75,000 during the first quarter this year, up slightly from the 97 houses sold at a median price of $65,000 during the same period last year. The median prices reflect a 15 percent increase from last year.

“They have a little bit of an (impact) from troops, but I think it was mostly the general economy coming back,” Mr. Evans said.

Loan rates have dropped to historic lows, making it a prime time to invest, Mr. Evans said. In April 2011, VA and Federal Housing Administration loans were in the 4.5 percent to 5 percent range and are now about 3.75 percent; conventional loans were in the 4.75 percent to 5.25 percent range but are now about 4 percent.

“Loan rates are most likely not going to drop any more, so waiting makes no sense,” he said. “It’s now less expensive to buy a home than it is to rent.”

About 800 homes that cost less than $200,000 are for sale in Jefferson and Lewis counties.

In contrast with the state trend, home prices have climbed substantially in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties in recent years. From 2004 to 2011, the median home price in Jefferson County increased from $76,000 to $146,000, the median price in Lewis County rose from $80,000 to $180,000 and the price jumped from $64,650 to $78,500 in St. Lawrence County. The median home price in New York state dropped from $229,037 to $212,500.

“A lot of new homes were built and sold at higher prices, and people have been rehabbing and selling homes more,” Mr. Evans said.

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