L.A.'s median home price rose for a second consecutive month in April, indicating the market may be stabilizing despite a slowdown in sales and the collapse of the subprime lending sector.
The median price of a home sold in Los Angeles County rose $15,000 from the previous month to $575,000. That was 2.7 percent higher than March, which itself was up $10,000 over February, according to HomeData Corp., a Melville, N.Y.-based company that tracks housing data nationwide. Those increases came after 11 straight months in which the price was stuck at or within $5,000 of the $550,000 mark.
The April median price also represented a solid 5.5 percent hike compared to a year earlier. The price rose even as just 5,096 homes were sold in April 29 percent less than the same month last year. The sales figure is the second-lowest monthly total in more than three years, behind only February when 3,661 units sold.
Delores Conway, director of the Casden Real Estate Economics Forecast at the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, said the price rise reflects a trend toward equilibrium, though other experts say the effects of the subprime market's troubles may not have fully played out.
"Right now everything looks like it is stabilizing," said Conway, who considers the April price rise negligible in itself. "So far we've seen an orderly decline in volume and an orderly stabilization of price."
Nationwide and locally, foreclosures are rising to levels not seen since the last housing bust in the early 1990s as some holders of subprime, adjustable rate mortgages fail to make payments. At the same time, the pool of available buyers has shrunk as lenders of all stripes tighten their credit criteria.
However, Conway said that barring any major downturn of the economy, she does not expect prices to fall, given what she refers to as the "downward stickiness of housing prices."
"People are very reluctant to lower the price of their homes when they're selling their homes," she said. "Instead, what they'll do is wait."
Conway also said that the decline in sales volume may represent a more normal market as the higher levels of the past few years were inflated by the activity of investors who sought to make a quick buck by buying and flipping housing sometimes without not even fixing them up.
"In 2005 and 2006 there was quite a bit of investment buying," she said. "Once those buyers left, that reduced volumes tremendously."
Robert Kleinhenz, deputy chief economist for the California Association of Realtors, agreed that the latest home price data was encouraging. "We've seen stability in sales. We've not seen any major price erosion anywhere in the state," he said.
But Kleinhenz warned that it was too early to tell if the market has bottomed out, given how the collapse of the subprime sector may have some lingering effects on the psychology of buyers.
One sign of that, he said, is the average time a house for sale sits on the market in Los Angeles County. That time has crept up recently to 9.6 months, which is within an acceptable range but is higher than the country's long-term average of about 8.3 months.
Ups and downs
Meanwhile, in individual communities, the housing market picture in April was somewhat murky.
For example, the Pico Rivera 90660 ZIP code saw 25 homes sell the same as last year with a modest 2.4 percent increase in median price to $475,000.
But John Stupin, an assistant manager with the Huntington Beach office of Tarbell Realtors, said high interest in a recent listing in the Pico Rivera area seemed to indicate a market that was heating up something which may be hard to read from the housing data alone.
"Things are still moving, but maybe not as fast as it was during the housing boom," he said. "And there's a good outlook for 2008."
The price data seem to show no overriding patterns in the Ventura County border area. For example, the Agoura Hills 91301 ZIP code saw a 24 percent jump in median price to $846,000, while the nearby West Hills 91307 ZIP code's median price dropped 3.8 percent to $625,000.
Tina Weinstein, a realtor with Tina Weinstein & Associates in Thousand Oaks, said houses in the area have been staying on the market longer, but favorable interest rates have made the market attractive for buyers.
"It is a good buyer's market, because interest rates are so low," she said. "If interest rates stay the same, the market will go up."
With eight homes sold in April, the Santa Monica 90402 ZIP code saw the highest median price in the county at $2.6 million, up 22 percent from last year.
Malibu's 90265 ZIP code as well as Bel Air's 90077 ZIP code and Westlake's 90057 ZIP code were the only other areas with median prices over $2 million each jumping more than 45 percent from last year.
But not all communities were so prosperous. The median price of houses in the Westlake Village 91361 ZIP code was $725,000, falling 57 percent from 2006, the biggest drop in Los Angeles County. The community did see a 14 percent increase in volume, with 25 homes selling in April.
And despite falling more than 35 percent, sales volume in Lancaster's 93536 ZIP code was the highest in the county, with 76 homes sold.
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