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Homes for Every Buyer

Slower market means buyers can be picky but sellers must be patient.

Selling a house in Fairfax County used to be a piece of cake: Put up a sign, wait five minutes, sign a contract and you're done. Now, with a slightly higher interest rate on mortgages and homes staying on the market for more than two months, sellers are getting nervous while buyers are getting pickier with what they're willing to accept.

For Rob Paxton, a Realtor with Long and Foster, said the slower market has created no shortage of headaches.

"We're seeing more houses where people just aren't stopping in," said Paxton, who sells homes in the Fairfax Station area.

In the last two years, it was increasingly common to have several offers on a single house, with interested buyers waiving such time-consuming items as inspections. Now, however, he's having problems getting interest in homes while offering an open tour.

"You can have a great house, the people selling it do everything you tell them to make it look great, but if no one comes to see it you can't sell it," Paxton said.

SOME HOMES have been sitting on the market for upwards of 90 days, which was unheard of just a year ago, Paxton said.

"In Fairfax Station, there have been houses just waiting to be sold and the price has been reduced twice," he said. "Those people start to offer other incentives to entice buyers."

Incentives may include changing the cabinets, carpets or installing a new roof all in the hopes of persuading a buyer, Paxton said.

"Sellers are using the same kind of incentives programs that builders use," he said.

Paxton admitted that some good deals are there for the finding in the real estate market, but sellers must be patient.

Confusion on the condition of the real estate market is adding to the hesitation, said Jamie Rudowski, a sales manager and representative for Calvert Homes.

"Things have been great but people are afraid of what the media's been printing," said Rudowski.

With interest rates for mortgages hovering around 6 percent recently, it may seem as though buyers would be less inclined to take out a 30-year mortgage, but Rudowski said the stabilizing market is something to enjoy.

"Most of the people buying homes in the Fairfax Station area that I've seen are in their 40s, they've got a couple kids and they're buying a home for the second or third time," she said. "They know what they're looking for and they're not as rushed."

Rudowski said that homes staying on the market for 90 days or more, in comparison with less than 30 days a year ago, is a sign that the market is returning to normal.

"It's not normal for people to be on a wait list to purchase a home," she said.

Buyers are also becoming more particular when it comes to the type of home they're looking to purchase, what sized lot it comes with and the proximity to schools, shopping centers and their jobs.

"People are now able to push issues of getting things repaired before they buy a home, they're not waiving the appraisal or inspection to get the jump on a house," said Leslie Reisinger, a Realtor with Weichert.

That's not to say that potential buyers still don’t hesitate when wondering what the market will be in a year.

"The truth is, I don't know. I don't have a crystal ball that works right now," Reisinger laughed. "I know that the past few years have been abnormal. Things are starting to stabilize now."

FALLING PRICES may lead to reduced assessments, which could possibly lead to lower property tax rates, Reisinger said.

"There was one house last year that went up $100,000 when one bid was received," she said. "There's no way that could've happened this year."

Those looking to sell their homes may be a bit nervous, but Reisinger said that's to be expected.

"It's an adjustment period for them," she said. "For so many years we've seen assessments going up and up, and it's hard to educate sellers that they can't compare with a market that isn't there anymore."

Reisinger said the most important thing for sellers to do when putting a price on their home is to compare with other homes in the area and then have a lower asking price.

"Sellers need to listen to Realtors," she said. "Otherwise, your house will be on the market for longer and you won't get the price you're looking for."

Buyers are looking for a perfect home, one that they can just move in to without having to make repairs, Reisinger said.

"I tell sellers to replace their laminate countertops and old roof if they want to sell their $700,000 to $800,000 home for near that much," she said.

NOT EVERYONE who wants to buy a home in Fairfax Station is looking for a five-acre lot, nor will they want a townhome with a postage-stamp sized lawn.

"You need to be realistic. There's a home for every buyer and a buyer for every home," Reisinger said.

Paxton said most of the people he's worked with have been looking to purchase a home closer to where they work.

"You can buy a cheaper house with all the land in Loudoun, but you're spending half the day in the car if you work in Washington or Arlington," he said. "People are moving in closer to avoid the wasted time."

Reisinger agreed, adding that the people who are interested in a single-family home in Crosspointe or South Run Oaks are not the same as those who want a horse farm.

Pat Fales, a Realtor with ReMax Allegiance, agreed that people who don't want the yard work won't be looking for a home in Fairfax Station.

"Many people move there because they want the privacy," she said.

As for the slowing trend in the market, Fales said sellers shouldn't panic.

"I've been in the business a long time and we've seen this before," she said. "We sold houses during times when the market was really bad. This is just a little slow."

Fales said she urges sellers to make sure their homes is "the best house for the money" in their neighborhood, properly fixed and prepared to show to possible buyers.

"People will recognize it's a good value," she said.

Overall, there is a slowing trend across Fairfax County, said Jill Landsman, communications and media relations manager for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors.

In September 2005, the average home in Fairfax County sold for $547,002 and was on the market for an average of 26 days. During the same time in Fairfax Station, the average home sold for $987,430 and was on the market for 30 days. In Clifton, the average house was on the market for 23 days and sold for about $635,027.

Looking at the statistics for this year, the numbers are not as frightening as they may first appear.

In Fairfax County in 2006, the average home was on the market for 77 days and sold for $514,124, a decrease of about 6 percent, Landsman said.

The same homes in Fairfax Station sold for $973,389 in September, a decrease of a little over one percent, and were on the market for 111 days.

However, in Clifton, the numbers were a bit more drastic, with the average home on the market for 77 days before selling for an average of $480,580, a decrease of a whopping 24.32 percent.

"That amount pretty much balances the rate of appreciation," Landsman said.

She said this pattern is nothing more than market correction: a slower selling market that is making up for the "frenzied action of the past few years."

People looking to purchase homes are now requiring inspections, which will save them more money in the long run, Landsman said. She encourages people looking to purchase a home to be savvy, talking with Realtors to get the best deal.

Landsman advises sellers to be realistic about their expectations.

"November 2006 is not November 2005 or 2004 or 2003," she said. "They need to be competitive and make sure their house is in stellar condition before they try to sell."