Buyers who missed out on the federal government's home buyer tax credits that ends today can still get a deal from real estate brokers and builders scrambling to keep potential buyers interested in a down economy.
With the busy spring selling season under way, buyers can get down-payment assistance, discounts and free upgrades that are, in some cases, worth as much as the $8,000 tax credit available since early 2009.
"Because of the (federal tax) incentives, we had a successful year," said James Graves, president of Colony Builders of Carolina, who is offering buyers their choice of $8,000 in discounts, closing costs and upgrades for at least the next three months. "We want to keep it going."
The credit helped Colony's sales increase about 15 percent last year after falling 20 percent in 2008, Graves said.
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Industry professionals are anxious to nurse a fragile rebound in the market that was sparked by the tax credits last year.
Sales have been on the rise in South Carolina as buyers jumped to take advantage of the credit. Sales were up 16 percent statewide in the first quarter of the year, compared with 2009, according to industry data.
But some industry officials fear sales could tank again when the free money goes away, particularly if historically low interest rates start to rise.
A coalition of Midlands-area real estate professionals is pushing a federal grant program that would give buyers up to $7,500 in down-payment assistance from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta. The group holds a monthly seminar that had been informing buyers about the tax credits.
Coldwell Banker United, Realtors, is planning a 10-day sale in late spring to encourage sellers to reduce prices to lure in buyers.
Rymarc Homes is offering the most aggressive incentives in its history starting Saturday, vice president Jim Fadell said. Buyers can get half off on two upgrades such as a sun room or hardwood floors.
"The tax credit did a lot to spur activity," Fadell said. "Right now, it's more about getting back to a normal type of market for these economic conditions."
He said he hopes the incentives will push buyers who are on the fence to buy instead of retreat.
In the Columbia area, sales are holding fairly steady after a big spike at the end of last year. Sales are down 3 percent for the quarter, but were up 28 percent during the last quarter of 2009, compared with the same period the year before.
The tax credit had its biggest impact in the Columbia area at the end of last year as buyers were scrambling to beat the November deadline - before Congress extended it, said Tony Hanson, regional director of sales for Holiday Builders.
His sales in South Carolina have risen about 60 percent in the first quarter of this year, he said.
"You look at when the tax credit ended last year, it was slamming," Hanson said. "It slowed off and it really hasn't gone crazy this year."
In fact, some of his buyers in recent weeks have been people who won't be able to take advantage of the tax credit because their houses won't be built in time, Hanson said.
"They just want to be in a home," he said.
Holiday is offering two upgrades for $1 - including stainless steel appliances, back yard fences and luxury master baths - starting Saturday and continuing for a couple of months.
Many of the builders are rolling out their programs Saturday just as the annual Tour of Homes, sponsored by the Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia, gets started.
Keeping potential buyers active by offering these types of incentives is critical to the fledgling economic recovery, association chief Earl McLeod said.
"Housing plays a major role in that recovery," he said. "Building houses employs people. It's all about jobs. That's the one missing ingredient."