As the Houston-area housing market gets stronger, some home shoppers are going to new lengths to get what they want.
Realtor Kay Harnden's clients were among seven bidders who submitted an offer on a two-bedroom fixer-upper in the Heights earlier this year. But the couple lost out to a competitor who wrote a letter to the homeowner conveying how much they loved the house and why they should have it.
"People are having to resort to stuff like that," Harnden said.
They're doing so because the inventory of homes for sale in the Houston area has fallen to its lowest level in more than five years.
Steady employment growth and increased consumer confidence has resulted in steep gains in the area's real estate market.
In July, home sales shot up 27 percent, the 14th straight month of positive sales, the Houston Association of Realtors said Tuesday in a monthly report. So far this year, sales are up 15 percent.
The rebound remains uneven, but prices are strengthening, particularly in areas close in and in master-planned communities.
The median price for a single-family home -- the figure at which half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less -- rose 6.3 percent to $170,000. That matched June's revised record high.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a market performing as well as Houston, even as the national housing recovery continues," Wayne Stroman, the association's chairman, said in the report.
Single-family housing inventory fell to 5.3 months in July -- the lowest level this market has seen since February 2007. Months inventory estimates the number of months it would take to sell the homes on the market based on the previous year of sales activity.
Market not 'overheated'
But not all buyers are scrambling to find homes, said Steve Barnes, president and chief operating officer of the Houston region of Coldwell Banker United, Realtors.
While demand is strong and fewer homes are on the market, he said, they are being replenished. And some owners still can't sell or get a loan to buy.
"We are starting to see some multiple offers, but this is not an overheated market," Barnes said.
The Houston realty association reported strong sales across the board, from low-end homes to luxury properties priced at more than $1 million.
While higher gas prices, the looming November election and other factors could temper the market, inventory is expected to remain low, said Evert Crawford, director of the University of Houston Hobby Center's Institute for Regional Forecasting.
"The forces driving this market into a buying rush are still at work," he said.
Even home builders are trying to keep up with demand.
The market for new homes has had a stronger-than-normal summer, likely due to the busy resale market, said David Jarvis, director of the Houston office of Metrostudy.
Home building is up 28 percent in the first half of the year. "There doesn't seem to be much in the way of excess supply right now," Jarvis said.
Most of the new construction is in Fort Bend County, The Woodlands and Katy, areas of historically high demand.
Buyers under stress
While sellers benefit from the tightened inventories, Harnden said those on the other side are finding it increasingly stressful to find homes to buy. She's started networking with other agents to spot houses before they go on the market.
One of her properties, a renovated Victorian in the Brooke Smith neighborhood, never had to go on the market because she knew a buyer who was looking in the area.
The three-bedroom house sold to a geologist in his mid-20s. Harnden put the property on the Multiple Listing Service for $354,000 just in case the sale didn't close -- which it did.
"It went very close to list," she said.
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