It's early, but 2012 is looking like a great year for the Tri-Cities home market.
The economy appears solid, interest rates are at historic lows and the area has many signs of a healthy market, according to local real estate agents.
Dave Retter, Windermere Real Estate/Tri-Cities owner and broker, said he is hearing from his real estate agents that buyers and sellers "are feeling pretty good about the Tri-Cities."
The housing market picked up in the fall after what some called a dismal summer.
There was exactly the same number of sales in December as there was in December 2010, Retter said. But the average sale price was nearly $207,000 for the 242 homes sold in December compared to about $205,000 in December 2010.
"We've had a good finish to the fall," he said.
And foreclosures were the lowest they have been in eight years, with 355 foreclosures in 2011 compared to 755 in 2010, according to a report by Benton-Franklin Title Company.
Last year, total sales were down from 2009 and 2010, but Tri-City real estate agents say those years were an anomaly because the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers artificially inflated the number of sales.
A total of 2,856 homes were sold in the Tri-City area, including Benton City, Burbank and Finley, Retter said. That compares to 3,267 sales in 2010.
Last year, the average sale price increased from $196,833 in 2010 to $200,291, he said.
A 3 percent to 5 percent appreciation in home prices from year to year lends itself to a healthy market, Retter said.
As of Monday, there were 1,111 homes listed on the market, which Retter said is normal for this time of year.
The Tri-Cities didn't see an increase in home listings after Hanford layoffs were announced, he said.
"I'm very optimistic about what I am seeing in the marketplace and peoples' attitudes," Retter said.
Paul Roy, president of the Tri-City Association of Realtors, said he is excited about 2012 and happy with what he is seeing in the market.
The major difference is consumer confidence, Roy said.
During the summer, people heard about the national debt crisis and worried about the effect of upcoming Hanford layoffs. Confidence was low.
Now, Roy said, confidence is up.
"The better people feel about their lives and their jobs, the more likely they are to make a move," he said.
Some of the decrease in sales can be attributed to families buying homes to take advantage of the first-time homebuyer tax credit, Roy said.
The number of home sales alone doesn't indicate the strength of the local market, Roy said.
Prices increased slightly, and the area had fewer foreclosures than 2010. Last year, the rate of foreclosures was less than half of the 832 foreclosures in 2008, which was the most in eight years, the report said.
Meanwhile, homebuilders have described the number of new homes being built in the Tri-Cities as sustainable.
More building permits were issued for new single-family homes in 2011 than in either 2008 or 2009, according to the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities.
A total of 1,332 permits were issued last year compared to 1,513 in 2010, according to the report.
But the number of permits in 2011 was higher than in 2008 or 2009.
People who bought homes now will discover they have made a wise decision, Retter said, because as the economy improves, interest rates will escalate.
Roy said he is seeing a growing number of investors buying up homes and turning them into rentals.
Many families can afford to buy a home for about the same cost as renting one, Roy said, adding that Tri-City rental prices have increased with the demand for apartments.
"We've just kind of settled back to where we were before the boom and bust started," he said. "We are calling it the new norm."
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org