Ah, spring. The sun is shining, birds are singing, daffodils are popping out of the ground, and so are “For Sale” signs in neighborhood yards.
Well, that last thing – this spring, not so much.
As potential homeowners are quickly finding out, in the Fort Wayne area right now, it's not easy to find a house to buy, even in the midst of the traditional busy house-hunting season.
Statistics from Upstar, the Fort Wayne-based Upstate Alliance of Realtors, paint the picture. They show the number of homes for sale through Realtors in the association's seven counties has sunk to a historic low.
As in – off-the-charts low.
For example, in February, the most recent month for which statistics are available, Allen County had only a 1.6 months' supply of available homes – 714 houses. Putting that into perspective, Upstar's charts stop at a two months' supply – a number that had never been reached regionally since records started in 2005.
Regionally, the picture isn't much different.
The 1,211 houses for sale in February in Upstar's seven-county area – Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Noble, Wells and Whitley – amounted to only a 2.7 months' supply.
Realtors keep track of those numbers because they indicate who has the upper hand in home transactions. A balanced market favoring neither buyers nor sellers typically exists with a four-to-five months' supply of homes.
Below that, sellers have the advantage because there are more prospective buyers compared with the number of available homes. Above five, a buyers' market develops, one in which buyers can more likely dictate terms to sellers because so many homes are for sale.
The national supply of homes for sale hasn't been this thin in nearly 20 years. And over the past year, the steepest drop in supply has occurred among homes that are typically most affordable for first-time buyers and in markets where prices have risen sharply.
In markets like San Diego, Boston and Seattle, competition for a dwindling supply has escalated along with pressure to offer more money and accept less favorable terms.
“Sellers will have the edge again this year,” said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for Trulia, a real estate data provider. “Homebuyers are really going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as housing choice is concerned.”
Area Realtors say they've been dealing with a sustained sellers' market at least since mid-2015. Last spring, area Realtors pointed out the unusual situation of having less than a three months' supply of homes during homebuying season. But this year, inventory is about 30 percent lower than that regionally and about 33 percent lower in Allen County.
“It's been an incredible spring, with the market how it's been,” said Scott Pressler, a Realtor with Visibility Group, Fort Wayne. He said real estate pros are hoping to find houses to list and reacting to new listings for potential buyers.
“Believe it or not, I'm having to tell people (who are sellers), 'I can probably sell your house fast. But do you have somewhere to go?' ” he said. “And when you're working with buyers, you're having to be on top of them having their ducks in a row. You have to tell them there's a lot of competition, so you have to be ready to put your best foot forward or you'll lose out.”
As much as ever, potential buyers need to have prequalified for a mortgage, Pressler said.
Just how fast a house can sell these days hit home last week for Realtor Ashley Holley of Fort Wayne's Century 21 Bradley. A four-bedroom, 2.5-bath ranch house she listed at 6920 White Eagle Drive in northeast Fort Wayne sold less than 72 hours after it was put on the market by investor-owners who had remodeled it.
Among the homes she has listed recently, the longest any has been on the market is 22 days. “That is extremely low,” she said. “Currently, homes are not on the market long.”
Some area Realtors contacted last week by The Journal Gazette said a two-day or three-day list-to-sale timetable is common. And the reason not many yard signs are visible? Realtors said some don't even bother to put them up because houses are selling so fast.
“They're more a marketing tool,” Pressler said. Buyers scarcely have time to drive by a sign and call for a showing before houses are gone, he said.
Holley said technology is abetting the quick turnover as well as depressing the on-market numbers. Many Realtors get cellphone notifications of when a house hits the multilist service used by other Realtors, she said. Showings and offers, often multiple ones, follow within a day or two.
That can mean the house never hits the on-market statistics, Holley said, so there may be more available homes than are seen at first glance.
But even closed-sale statistics have started to decline.
They had been posting mostly single-digit, year-over-year increases, but that number has dropped this year – closed sales were off by 12.8 percent in February over last year, showing availability is “truly limited,” she said.
“This is the first time we've started to see that impact.”
Realtors said people appear to be putting off selling their home now because they don't want to become buyers. Even if sellers can command higher prices, quick offers and bidding wars, they don't want to be on the other side.
Joe Spicer, 35, of Fort Wayne and his wife, Amanda, and their two girls have been through that mill looking for their new home.
They wanted to buy a house on a lake at auction, but lost the house when the price went too high. Then, they put in an offer on another lake house, but got beat by another offer. They decided to settle for a house with a pool or room for one, but at least twice, scheduled showings were canceled because other offers were accepted, Spicer said.
Then the Spicers found a near-perfect property in the Pine Valley subdivision – and the couple got the very first showing. But, even though they put in a full-price offer right away, there were more offers before the paperwork could go through.
“What we ended up having to do was to do this new thing called a contingency offer – that we would beat any other offers up to a specific price,” he said. “That's the reason we got that house.”
But true to trend, there was a silver lining. When they went to sell their existing house, “We had 15 showings in two days,” Spicer said.
They included one under the asking price, but another $5,000 over what he expected.
“We took it,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story