Housing market still strong as pandemic winds down

Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala.
·4 min read

Apr. 9—Tony Porco builds houses for a living, and lately he can't build them fast enough. His biggest problem: waiting for scarce supplies that can hold up construction. He can frame up a house easily, he said, then spend months waiting on windows.

"People are rushing you up," said Porco, an Anniston homebuilder. "Everybody wants to get things done right now."

That's Calhoun County's housing market in 2021: still booming despite a year of pandemic. Figures from the Calhoun County Probate Office show 576 mortgages filed in the county in March, the highest one-month number since the housing boom that preceded the 2008 recession.

Home sales in the county are up 13 percent over figures from the same time in 2020, according to the Alabama Center for Real Estate at the University of Alabama. House prices are up 15 percent over the year, according to ACRE.

A similar story is unfolding across the country, as low pandemic-era interest rates convince more people they should buy, and prices of homes rise accordingly.

Local bankers and real estate agents aren't worried about a housing bubble of the type that preceded the Great Recession, but some say the boom can't go on at this pace much longer.

"This is not sustainable, in my mind," said Everett King, owner of ERA King Real Estate. "A market in which it takes 30 days to sell a house is not sustainable, in my mind."

King said the pandemic year was surprisingly good to his business. King saw a record year for home sales in 2019 — then saw sales rise by 25 percent again in 2020.

Like others who spoke to The Star Thursday, he described a simple formula. Low interest rates are driving people to buy instead of rent. Current homeowners aren't any more eager to sell, and new homes were scarce at the start of the boom. Prices rise because supply is short.

"It's a situation where we cannot keep a sign in the yard," said Chad Barnett, an agent for Keller Williams Realty.

Local and city officials in Calhoun County have fretted for years about projected declines in the county's population — but Barnett said the current housing surge is not due solely to local renters who've decided they want to own. Retirees from big metro areas such as Atlanta are buying in the Anniston area, he said, where they can get more house for less money.

The growth in the number of mortgages recorded in the county this year has outpaced the number of home sales, which suggests that more homeowners are refinancing their houses.

Scott Nelson, vice president for mortgages at Noble Bank, said he's not sure refinances are indeed surging.

"Right now, we're running about 60-40, between purchases and refinances," he said. "It's neck and neck."

What is happening, he said, is continued growth in mortgages generally. And it's been that way throughout the pandemic.

"The last 14 months has been unreal," he said. "It's been very busy."

Stuart Norton, an analyst at ACRE, said he's heard of an increase in refinancing across the country. If that is happening, he said, it wouldn't be a surprise.

"Interest rates are likely to tick up by the end of the year," he said. "If homeowners haven't refinanced, they'd better do it now."

King said interest rates for most homebuyers have already begun to rise, from the two percent range to the mid-threes — both of which would be absurdly low numbers in normal times. He said he's expecting them to rise more. But nobody's expecting a crash like the one that followed the early 2000s housing boom.

"This boom is due to strong market fundamentals instead of speculation," said Norton, the ACRE expert. Banks have more strict rules about how they make loans, he said, and the people who do own houses are on a stronger footing.

King agreed.

"We're no longer giving a loan to everyone who can fog a mirror," he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.