April 16, 2012 | last updated April 25, 2012 11:40 am

Real Estate Forecast: Sunny With Rising Sales, More Buyers

Rick Healey of Leominster-based Foster-Healey Real Estate Inc. said there's one obvious reason the real estate market has been better so far this year than it was in 2011.

"Without a couple feet of snow on the ground, people can see what they're looking at," he said.

But that doesn't seem to be the only reason. According to Boston-based market intelligence firm The Warren Group, the 2,350 single-family Massachusetts homes sold in February represented the highest February total in five years. Sales have risen in seven of the past eight months, the firm said.

Things are looking particularly good in Central Massachusetts. The Warren Group's statistics show single-family sales rising 16 percent year-over-year for January and February across the state. In Worcester County, the increase was 28 percent.

"I do think there's a ton more activity," said Andrew Abu, owner of Westborough real estate firm Andrew J. Abu Inc.

Abu said his 6-year-old firm did surprisingly well over the past two years, compared with the general market, but it's doing even better now. It helps, he said, that he operates in affluent communities like Upton and Southborough, where demand seems particularly strong.

"It feels like they're selling more quickly," he said.

Movin' On Up?

Abu said his firm tends to do quite a lot of word-of-mouth and repeat business. Some of the clients who bought houses a few years ago are now returning to buy again, finding that their economic situation and the housing market are stable enough that it makes sense to move up to larger digs.

"Anything in the high end is starting to show an improvement," agreed Nancy Valentino of Prudential Ursula M. Stephan Realtors in Sudbury.

She said million-dollar homes are selling in Sudbury and brand new subdivisions in nearby towns are opening up with houses already reserved. If anything, Valentino said, the current climate is harder on the lower end of the market.

"Your first-time buyers are struggling a little, because you need to put so much down," she said.

Even in the generally more affordable North Central Massachusetts region, luxury homes are much bigger sellers than they were a year or two ago, according to Mark Kavanagh, team leader at Keller Williams Realty in Leominster and president of the North Central Massachusetts Association of Realtors. He said entry-level homes have been moving for some time, but the movement on the higher end is something new.

Shortage Of Bank-Owned Properties

Even at the lowest price points, Kavanagh said, interesting things are happening. In some places, he said, there's an actual shortage of bank-owned properties, prompting multiple offers and bids over the listing prices. He said that kind of thing is most common in towns where foreclosures haven't been a serious problem. Investors and first-time buyers are fighting over good deals in communities where they aren't common, but they can pick up whatever they want for cheap in places like Fitchburg, where there are lots of foreclosures on the market.

Healey, who does business from offices in Leominster and Athol, said recoveries in the housing market typically move from east to west. Many people who must commute to jobs in MetroWest or Boston try to find the most affordable community that's closest to work, and, with prices down over the past several years, that may now be closer than it used to be.

"Affordability is far less of an issue than it had been in the past," he said.

Still, Healey said there are also buyers who like the more rural communities found on the western edge of Central Massachusetts, and some aren't worried about location because they can telecommute to their jobs.

In February, The Boston Globe ran a story identifying Athol as the "home of the housing bust," with prices down more than 50 percent since 2005. The story may not have thrilled everyone in town, but Healey said the negative publicity had at least one positive outcome.

"I will tell you, there are people coming out and driving around and looking because of that," he said.

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