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Triangle home sales rose modestly in March as the national housing slump continued to pinch the area's largest business. Brokers in the area closed on 2.5 percent more homes in March than in 2006, but all the news was not good. The inventory of unsold homes rose 13 percent, and the number of sellers dropping prices increased 16 percent compared with a year ago. "There's no question things are slower," said Mark Vitner, an economist with Wachovia in Charlotte. Closings in Wake, Durham, Orange and Johnston counties totaled 2,606 in March, up from 2,543 a year before, according to the Triangle Multiple Listing Service. But sales for the first three months of 2007 were flat compared with the first quarter of 2006. By comparison, first-quarter sales in 2006 jumped 20.1 percent from a year before, according to the Triangle MLS. "The Triangle is doing very well, but we're seeing it slow all over the country and the Triangle is no exception," Vitner said. Nationally, home sales began slowing more than a year ago as markets became glutted, hurt by speculative buying that had pushed prices up. The Triangle was spared much of that as steady job growth here continued to bring in buyers. But this season has had a much weaker start because job growth has slowed and transplants are still having trouble selling their homes in distressed areas. Sales likely will cool further. Residential building permits -- an indicator of future sales -- declined in March. Wake County issued 11.3 percent fewer permits in March than in 2006; Durham County was down 48 percent. Vitner said Triangle sales could decline 5 percent to 10 percent in the second quarter because of declining demand and tougher lending restrictions. Still, some brokers are happy, particularly when they look at other parts of the country. Fourth-quarter sales were down 30.8 percent in Florida, 36.1 percent in Nevada and 26.9 percent in Arizona, according the National Association of Realtors in Washington, D.C. They also point out that home prices in the Triangle have continued to rise. The average sales price of $233,763 in March was up 6.1 percent from a year before. "Compared to the rest of the country, we're doing well, but we're seeing more and more people who can't buy 'here' because they can't sell 'there,' " said Shields Pittman, a broker for York Simpson Underwood in Raleigh. Pittman has sold 12 homes this year, slightly ahead of last year, but could have sold four more if owners moving here could sell their houses. Susan Holbrook, a broker at Coldwell Banker Howard Perry and Walston's office on Falls of the Neuse Road, said its sales are ahead of last year. Last year, first-quarter sales totaled 366. This year, quarterly sales totaled 375, a 2.4 percent increase, and volume doubled to $80 million. But she too is losing sales as transplants are unable to unload their former homes. She also said tougher lending restrictions in the subprime market have eliminated a few buyers. But "2 percent over a record year is an incredible number," she said. "At certain price ranges, if you list today you will have competing offers and it will sell tomorrow at above-list price," Holbrook said.
"From the News & Observer, staff writer, Dudley Price"