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F-M housing market 'fast and furious' despite pandemic; continued ultra-low interest rates spur buying, refinancing

Home sales and refinancing continue to remains strong in the region and around the country - despite the pandemic - as low interest rates offer opportunities to buy a first home, buy a bigger home, downsize, or to trim monthly mortgage payments.

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Some of about two dozen homes going up between 73rd and 74th Avenues South by Fargo's Davies High School are seen Wednesday, Sept. 15. Home sales and refinancing have remained strong in Fargo-Moorhead and the rest of the country - despite the pandemic - as people take advantage of low interest rates. Helmut Schmidt / The Forum
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FARGO - Alexa Eugenio figures that if she’s going to be cooped up during the ongoing pandemic, that she needs a bigger place to call home.

“I can’t really imagine spending the winter during a pandemic in my apartment,” the 27-year-old said.

To that end, Eugenio has joined a wave of people that have made the housing market one of the U.S. economy’s continuing strong sectors.

“I’ve been able to save money since graduating from college. I figured I now have enough money for a down payment,” the Sanford Health nurse said recently. ”You know what they always say, as soon as you can stop paying rent, you should.”

Eugenio, who lives in an efficiency in downtown Fargo, moved here from Tucson, Ariz. She noticed immediately that houses “are a lot cheaper here.”

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After a couple of misses, she hopes she’s got a winner in Moorhead.

“I did buy a house. I haven’t closed on it yet. I want to say it’s 1,800 square feet,” Eugenio said, ticking off its virtues. “It’s pretty small. It is listed as a four-bedroom, one bathroom. It doesn’t have a dining room, but it has a three-season porch. The basement is unfinished. The price ended up being $144,900.”

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Anything under $200,000 “was either super rundown or it would be gone the first day,” she said.
“I saw this house come on the market and literally hours later I was looking at it with my Realtor.

A few hours later I put an offer on it,” Eugenio said.

She’d already lost one bidding war. And she backed away from a deal with a homeowner that wanted more than $200,000, but didn’t want to fix anything.

“Feeling like it was the right price was important. If the payment was low enough that I could do the work, that was alright with me. I like the idea of having a house that I could make my own,” Eugenio said.

Home buying boom

Eugenio is not alone in seeking a home to make her own.

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The Fargo-Moorhead area, like much of the nation, has seen a home-buying boom, thanks to continued ultra-low mortgage interest rates, and in no small measure, people looking for a space or spaces that can be used as a home office or for online schooling.

The Fargo-Moorhead Area Association of Realtors shared local Multiple Listing Service statistics on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

As of Wednesday, there have been 3,508 listings in 2020 in Fargo-Moorhead and West Fargo, up 14.9% from the 3,053 recorded at the same point in 2019.

There have been 2,930 sales in the metro in 2020, up 9.2% from last year.

The average sale price this year is $252,446, up nearly 5.6% from last year.

Broken down by city for 2020, Fargo leads in pending listings with 1,360, up 19.7% from 2010, followed by West Fargo with 651 pending listings, up 18.1%, and Moorhead with 561 listings, up 10.2%.

West Fargo leads in percentage increases in sales this year, with 545, up 15%, followed by Fargo at 1,131, up 10.7%, and Moorhead with 475, up 8.7 %.

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Jamie Swenson

Jamie Swenson, a Realtor with Park Company Realtors, said the number of days on the market for homes has gone down significantly since the first three months of the year when it teetered around 85-90 days. Now it’s down to 60 days. That’s a quick turnaround, because about a third of homes in the F-M area are new construction and listed “before there’s even a hole in the ground,” she said.

“I’ve been selling for nine years. April is usually one of our busier months,” Swenson said. But this “was a definite slowdown” because of COVID. We caught up in June and July.”

Despite the pandemic, people still need to move for jobs, have growing families, or conversely, have decided to downsize.

“I’m not seeing a lot of hesitation” from buyers, Swenson said. “Statistically, it’s a pretty good time to put a house on the market.”

Going big to get a home

The Minnesota Realtors August market report is also filled with good news for home sellers and Realtors.

Pending sales are up 16.3% so far this year, compared to August 2019, with the average sale price rising 9.1% to $323,788, Minnesota Realtors reported.

Lack of inventory is a problem for first-time buyers, with the number of homes for sale in August down 36.2% compared with last year. The two-month supply of housing for sale is a historic low, Minnesota Realtors reported.

Nationally total existing home sales (which include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops) jumped 24.7% from June to a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 5.86 million in July, the National Association of Realtors reported.

“The housing market is well past the recovery phase and is now booming with higher home sales compared to the pre-pandemic days,” said Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist. “With the sizable shift in remote work, current homeowners are looking for larger homes and this will lead to a secondary level of demand even into 2021.”

The median existing-home price for all housing types in July was $304,100, up 8.5% from July 2019’s $280,400, with prices rising in every region.

A recent Lending Tree survey confirms that buyers are willing to fork over more cash for a home.

Sixty-four percent of more than 1,000 home buyers recently surveyed say they are willing to go over budget for their perfect house, the survey said. That sentiment is particularly strong for Millennials, with 76% of those polled willing to pay more for a home.

Record low mortgage rates - which at times dipped below 3% - may give some home buyers a false sense of security about how much they can afford, and spark bidding wars, said Tendayi Kapfidze, Lending Tree’s chief economist.

‘A fantastic opportunity’

Keely Schlichting, a vice president and mortgage production manager for Bell Bank, said low interest rates have fueled an unrelenting tide of work.

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Keely Schlichting

“We are seeing mortgage volumes that I have never seen in my 21 years. Again, that’s due to the low interest rates. Right now it’s about 50% purchases and 50% refinances,” Schlicting said Wednesday, Sept. 16.

Earlier this year, refinancing was the primary focus, as homeowners locked in lower interest rates to save money. Then home improvement and home buying took hold.

“I think it has a lot to do a lot with people staying home,” Schlicting said. “Sometimes they (homeowners) see things they want to do with their house so they draw on their home equity to fix up a house. They also refinance to get lower payments during COVID.”

Schlicting is confident interest rates are going to stay low for a while longer.

“If you haven’t refinanced yet, it’s not too late. If you want to buy a home, it’s not too late,” she said. “Everyone just needs to be patient. Due to the high volumes (of loan applications), the response times are taking longer. The lenders are saturated. They’ll get to you.”

Kim Settel
Kim Settel

It’s been busy at Gate City Bank, too, said Kim Settel, executive vice president of retail banking and lending.

“It’s kind of interesting to have a year where there’s a pandemic and then you have on top of that an unprecedented mortgage environment as far as refinances and purchases. It’s been fast and furious, but wonderful,” Settel said Thursday, Sept. 17.

Settel said that along with great interest rates (sometimes under 3%) there are programs to help buyers lower down payments

People can also restructure student loan debt to help them with buying or refinancing a home.

“It’s just really a fantastic opportunity,” Settel said, and customers can do much of the process electronically from the comfort of their homes.

Room to grow

Eugenio hasn’t locked in her interest rates yet, even as the home-buying process chugs toward setting a closing date.

“The starting rate is 3.25 percent. My loan agent thinks that sometime before closing, we can probably get under 3 percent. I’m excited, Hopefully, I will be able to move in before it’s too wintery,” Eugenio said.

She’s getting into the homeowner mindset, too.

“The house I’m buying was built in 1948. There’s definitely already things I know I need to fix. I’m a little bit nervous, but my payment is only $800, so fixing things is definitely do-able,” she said.

There’s pride in her voice as she talks about having saved enough to make a 20% downpayment to keep her monthly payments down.

And Eugenio will have room to grow.

She said she did an internship on an organic vegetable farm, and anticipates putting in a garden.

“I’m really glad that I was able to purchase a home,” Eugenio said.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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