It was a return to a more balanced, stable Whatcom County real estate market in 2013, and signs point toward more gradual improvement in 2014.
While home sales were strong in 2013 - up 14.5 percent in Whatcom County compared to 2012 - the median price for those homes sold rose a steadier 4 percent for the same period, according to data put together by Lylene Johnson, a real estate agent for The Muljat Group. Johnson analyzed data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service as well as her own records.
"The great thing about this (report) is nothing is going wild; it's been a gradual improvement in the market this past year," Johnson said.
That gradual improvement is a change of pace from 2008 to 2011, a period marked by the real estate bubble burst of plunging prices and sales. In 2012 local sales rose 13.4 percent while the median price went up 3.2 percent.
What was particularly encouraging about 2013 for buyers and sellers was that the growth was done organically, without government intervention or other outside factors, said Darin Stenvers, branch manager at the Bellingham John L. Scott office. He added that the steady price growth is also an indicator that a bubble is not returning at this point.
"This is a very sustainable level of growth," said Stenvers, who is a member of the NWMLS board.
While it's been a couple of years of strong home sales, 2013 was still about 15 percent below the peak year of 2006, according to Johnson's data. The median price is about 8 percent below the peak of 2007.
BELLINGHAM TALLIES 47 PERCENT OF TOTAL SALES
One of the significant trends in 2013 was more real estate activity took place in Bellingham compared to the rest of the county. Bellingham had 47 percent of the total Whatcom County sales, up from 43 percent in 2010.
Home sales in Bellingham rose 17.6 percent in 2013 compared to the previous year. The median price jumped 7.3 percent to $295,000, significantly higher than the overall county median price of $259,950.
During the real estate bubble, home prices in Bellingham got too expensive and buyers began purchasing more homes out in the county, said Gragg Miller of Coldwell Banker Bain.
Bellingham's median price in 2013 points to another trend: More people were "moving up" and buying houses in the $300,000 to $500,000 range, Miller said. That change shows up in the monthly sales distribution: In September and November, for example, the same number of homes were sold in the under $300,000 price range as the $300,000 to $500,000 range.
That's different from the years following the bubble burst here in 2008. What sales did take place were generally in the first-time home-buyer price range.
While Bellingham posted strong sales growth in 2013, low inventory has prompted some concerns about whether that will continue in 2014. New home construction in the city has remained low, so Miller expects more existing homes to go on the market this spring because of the price appreciation.
Sudden Valley and the Birch Bay/Blaine areas also posted strong home sales in 2013. Sudden Valley sales were up 32.5 percent while Blaine/Birch Bay were up 27 percent.
Lynden was one of the few communities that posted a decrease in home sales, down 9.2 percent for the year.
WHAT'S AHEAD FOR 2014?
Miller, Johnson and Stenvers all expect steady, incremental improvement locally in 2014, with prices rising about the same rate as 2013.
A 4 percent or so increase in the median price across the county represents a balanced market to Miller.
"That's a normal increase for this area," Miller said.
Interest rates are expected to rise but at a steady rate; Johnson predicts the 30-year fixed rate to be around 5 percent by the end of the year. For buyers who find a home they want, Johnson suggests buying sooner rather than later because of the potential rise in interest rates and prices.
For potential sellers, Johnson said the important thing is to not get overconfident when setting a price.
"Plenty of homes have been sitting out there (unsold) for a long time," because the property wasn't priced correctly, she said.
With the holidays out of the way, Johnson said she's already seeing more people preparing for the traditionally busier spring and summer months. When that activity ramps up in terms of sales depends on several factors, including the weather.
2013 HOME SALES BY COMMUNITY
A look at the median sales price, average sales price, total homes sold and average days on the market for different communities in Whatcom County:
Median sales price, $259,950, up 4 percent
Average sales price, $290,428, up 2.9 percent
Total homes sold, 2,390, up 14.5 percent
Average days on the market, 100, down 20 percent.
Median sales price, $295,000, up 7.3 percent
Average sales price, $341,258, up 6 percent
Total homes sold, 1,114, up 17.6 percent
Average days on the market, 75, down 28.6 percent.
Median sales price, $224,450, down 2.4 percent
Average sales price, $257,597, down 10.5 percent
Total homes sold, 282, up 27 percent
Average days on the market, 129, down 28.7 percent.
Median sales price, $267,000, up 6.8 percent
Average sales price, $271,705, up 1.7 percent
Total homes sold, 331, up 11.4 percent
Average days on the market, 102, down 19.7 percent.
Median sales price, $255,000, unchanged
Average sales price, $274,061, down 0.2 percent
Total homes sold, 207, down 9.2 percent
Average days on the market, 97, down 16.4 percent.
Median sales price, $104,794, up 9.2 percent
Average sales price, $145,950, up 3.6 percent
Total homes sold, 150, up 11.1 percent
Average days on the market, 169, unchanged.
Median sales price, $225,000, up 8.2 percent
Average sales price, $225,365, up 4.2 percent
Total homes sold, 85, down 3.4 percent
Average days on the market, 134, down 2.9 percent.
Median sales price, $209,000, down 7.2 percent
Average sales price, $278,053, up 4.9 percent
Total homes sold, 19, up 35.7 percent
Average days on the market, 309, up 22.6 percent.
Median sales price, $210,000, up 4.3 percent
Average sales price, $224,018, up 3.9 percent
Total homes sold, 159, up 32.5 percent
Average days on the market, 108, down 7.7 percent.
SOURCE: Lylene Johnson, The Muljat Group