More Tri-City families are starting to get off the sidelines and hunt for new homes.
Area real estate agents said more buyers are checking out homes during open houses than they have seen in a long time.
The nationwide rebound of the housing market helps increase the confidence of Tri-Citians and makes them more comfortable about making a decision about the size of a new home, said Dave Retter, Windermere Real Estate/Tri-Cities owner and broker.
There is more optimism from buyers, real estate agents and builders, said Paul Roy, Tri-City Association of Realtors past president.
All the economic indicators seem to be showing that the nation is on an upswing from the recession.
There is some pent-up demand from buyers who took a wait-and-see stance, said Roy, managing broker with Coldwell Banker Tomlinson Associated Brokers of Kennewick.
Some Tri-Citians who have been living in apartments waiting for their homes in other areas to sell are selling those houses, Retter said.
Real estate agents also are seeing some of the types of buyers -- move-up buyers and upper-end buyers -- who have been missing from the Tri-City market in the past three years, he said.
The area needs a variety of people looking to buy new homes to be healthy, from first-time buyers to retirees looking to downsize, Retter said.
First-time home sellers are like the beginning of a domino effect, Roy said. Their decision to sell their home and buy a new home gives first-time home buyers more choices, and it lets the seller of their new home have the same chance to move up to a new home.
"Last year we were very optimistic. This year we are seeing the reality," Roy said.
There were 326 homes sold during January and February this year, compared with 330 sold in the same two months of last year.
The average price is up to about $203,400, compared to about $198,400 during the same months last year, Retter said. That's a combination of the value of homes going up, and some higher value homes being sold.
The median sale price is about $184,400, which means an equal number of homes have been sold for more than $184,400 and for less than that amount, he said. Last year, the median was $175,000 for January and February.
That is one of the highest medians seen recently, and is a good sign, he said.
There were 1,152 homes on the market in Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Pasco earlier this week, Retter said. That compared with about 1,212 in October, and is a fairly good number for the cities.
Carol Bird, Tri-Cities Realty Group co-owner, said she is seeing more new homes where contractors have the land and then the buyer picks the home that will be built on the lot. It can take at least 90 days for the home to be finished.
In general, buyers are looking for new homes rather than older, existing homes, she said.
Bird said she thinks the local real estate market will stay fairly stable this year. Interest rates still are low, and that can make the difference on what home a family can afford.
While home sales remain similar, the number of building permits issued for new homes in the Tri-Cities is about 30 percent lower than those issued last year.
In January and February, 157 building permits were issued, compared to 222 during the same two months in 2011, according to the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities.
Rene Dahlgren, the association's director of government affairs, said she is not sure exactly why fewer homes have received permits so far this year.
Pasco issued 46 permits for new single-family homes in January and February, compared to 82 during the same months last year. Dahlgren said she expects the city's consideration of school impact fees caused some builders to look elsewhere.
The next few months will be telling in how the year will shape up, she said.
"I really expect it to even out for the most part," Dahlgren said.
Roy expects home prices to increase as the economy improves. And he said he would encourage buyers to take advantage of the low interest rates now, since those rates will rise as the economy improves.
"Now is the time to get out there," Roy said.