Home prices could stabilize in 2010

Home prices dipped to a four-year low in the Columbia area this year as sellers - particularly in upper-end markets - struggled to sell their homes.

But with more people buying real estate in the last few months of the year, industry experts expect the demand to help home prices stabilize in 2010.

Home sales have skyrocketed in the last quarter of the year as first-time buyers have taken advantage of an $8,000 tax credit, historically low interest rates and lower prices.

The rush has brought some optimism back to the local real estate market, which has been struggling for more than two years.

"It feels just like a normal year, instead of feeling depressed," said Margaret Ann Ashburn, broker-in-charge of Russell & Jeffcoat Realtors Forest Acres office. "We'll be back to a stable, normal year (in 2010). I don't think we'll get to a boom again for quite some time."

For the year, through November, the median price in Columbia was $139,000, down nearly 3 percent from the same time period last year, according to the latest information available from the S.C. Realtors trade group. That's down 5 percent from the peak of $146,000 in 2007 but up 5 percent from 2005's $132,000.

Nationally, home prices were up 0.4 percent in October from September but still down 7.3 percent from last October, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index released Tuesday.

Home prices remained relatively strong in the Columbia area even as home sales started to plummet in 2008.

But excess inventory and desperate sellers drove down prices this year, Ashburn said.

Now, with a stabilizing market, buyers are even starting to compete for homes again, she said.

"We've had a couple of multiple offers," she said. "That had become unheard of."

Ashburn expects the federal tax credit, which was extended through spring and expanded to include more buyers, to keep the market strong until the traditional home selling season. Then, she said, pent-up demand will help it stay steady.

"I would not be surprised if values started going back up again," she said.