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For the first time in recent memory, the median price of a house in metro Denver is less than it was a year ago. 

And for some who make a living selling houses, there’s a sense of relief.

“Every single month in 2021 and the first half of 2022, everybody in our (real estate) community went, ‘Oh my goodness. How much more can this go? What will buyers put up with?’ I mean having to pay a penny over the appraised value is just bonkers to me,”  said Matt Leprino, CEO of Denver-based real estate brokerage Remingo. 

Now, he said, “It’s calm, it’s a very tepid pool right now. It’s not increasing. It’s not going crazy. Days on market are up. But they’re up from historic lows. The majority of phone calls we get right now are… ‘Can I jump in right now?’”

New data for January from the Colorado Association of Realtors has median home prices flattening statewide. Houses are taking twice as long — sometimes three times longer — to sell compared to a year ago. But that’s not very long. In the seven-county metro Denver area, that’s 53 days, or about four weeks longer than 22 days in January 2022. That’s getting back to the time just before the pandemic, or 48 days in January 2020.

Home prices in Denver and Colorado increased at unprecedented rates in the past two years. Metro Denver’s median sales price hit a high of $660,000 in April, up 17.4% in a year. That dropped to $569,804, as of January, which is 1.4% lower than a year-ago January. As Littleton economist Patty Silverstein told the real estate industry at an economic summit last week, “We’re (in) some type of slowdown but that’s very welcome. We’re in a rest period here.”

The slowdown began last spring as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to cool inflation. But mortgage rates have more than doubled in a year, making it much more expensive for home buyers who need a loan. Based on the Denver metro area’s median sales price, a buyer’s monthly payment is roughly $1,000 more than it would have been last January, according to Bankrate’s mortgage calculator

Newly completed town home units sit ready for sale along the Colorado River in Grand Junction, Colo. They’re next door to Edgewater Brewery, pioneer riverfront businessman Jim Jeffryes’ expansion of Kannah Creek Brewing Company. Photo by William Woody.

“The major thing we have seen is a dramatic slowdown in activity,” said Ann Hayes, a Realtor with Keller Williams Colorado West Realty in Grand Junction. “A lot of people, with the change in the interest rates, were priced out of the market.”

Mesa County saw a 3.4% dip in its median-sales price, falling to $379,950 in January. That makes it a little more affordable for first-time buyers. But even though mortgage rates are below their peak, they are still above 6.5%. And that’s keeping homeowners in their homes, too.

“Sellers don’t like the fact that they’re at a 3% (mortgage loan) rate and if they buy a replacement, they’re going to be at six, or six and three-quarter rate,” Hayes said. “A lot of sellers are not even coming on the market.”

Some perspective

But the past two years have just been unprecedented, said Hayes, who’s sold houses in the area since 1994. Fifteen years ago, mortgage rates were in the 6% to 7% range, and back in the 1980s, they were double digits, with 30-year fixed rate loans averaging 18.63% in 1981, according to Freddie Mac historical data.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in 2022 in order to cool inflation. It seems to be working as January 2023 inflation dropped to 6.4%, down from 9% over the summer. But the impact was felt heavily in the real estate industry as higher rates made monthly mortgage payments higher for prospective homeowners. But take a look at where we’ve been: During the recession in the 1980s, mortgage rates hit above 18%. The 2-3% range in recent years was very low. Now, at around 6-7%, we’re back to where we were in the early 2000s. (Source: Freddie Mac, 30-Year fixed rate mortgage average in the United States, retrieved by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)

Still, Mesa County is a relatively hot market. The number of houses for sale in the area in and around Grand Junction has doubled in the past year to 456, compared with inventory of 1,816 homes in 2016, according to CAR. Over time, she said, buyers adjust to higher rates and higher prices if that’s where the market goes.

“People will have more babies (and) that will encourage people to think about doing other things,” Hayes said. “Life will start happening where it’s, ‘Well, I don’t like the interest rate, but, you know, a two-bedroom house with four kids isn’t going to work anymore.’”

Ask anyone in the real estate industry and they’ll tell you buying a house is a long-term investment. Values go up overtime even after slumps during downturns. 

“At no time in recorded history have prices, generally speaking, decreased,” said Leprino, pointing to the price dips of 2008, the early 1990s and other recessions. For the most part, the price of a house today is much higher than it’s ever been.

Higher prices, multiple offers still exist

But every market is different. Places like Pagosa Springs are dealing with a scarcity of houses below their median sales price, which increased a whopping 33% to $520,000 in January. Local Realtor Wen Saunders said the lower-priced homes below the $400,000 range “were gobbled up with low interest rates and cash buyers,” and many who were buying a second home.

“The bread and butter for Pagosa was always somewhere in the $300,000s. That was a beautiful thing. In 2021, we sold 105 and in 2022, we sold 56. Why? Because we didn’t have any more,” said Saunders, who’s been a Realtor in Pagosa for 14 years.

Meanwhile, the million-dollar homes went the other direction. Back in 2017, she said Pagosa had a five-year inventory of million-dollar homes and only about five sold in a year. 

“In 2021, we sold 48 homes that were in the million-dollar price point. And then there were another 11 that were in the $2 million range,” she said. “The number of sales will drop, but I just don’t see the prices dropping.” 

Pagosa Springs has had an influx of people move there because they can now work remotely from home and the town has grown so popular with tourists coming to recreate in the nearby San Juan Mountains and soak in the town’s famous hot springs that housing prices have skyrocketed. An increase in people moving to these areas has also forced housing prices to sky rocket beyond the affordability of middle class residents. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In Fort Collins, the median sales price in January was also higher than a year ago. There are still multiple offers going on, said Chris Hardy at Elevations Real Estate in Old Town Fort Collins. For one of his fellow agents, 8 out of 10 sales in January involved multiple offers. 

“It wasn’t like it was back in April or May when there were 15, 20 and 30 offers on any home that came on the market. But there were at least two or more offers on these homes,” Hardy said.

The data from the Northern Colorado multiple listing service recorded the city’s median price in January at $549,999, up about $11,000 from a year ago. In Larimer County, median sale prices increased 6.4% to $570,000, according to CAR data. Inventory has nearly doubled in a year, but it’s only taking two weeks longer to get a house sold in the county.

But Hardy added a caveat to the higher prices. Houses aren’t necessarily getting their full list price, especially those on the market since November. Those have likely reduced their price. And competition among buyers doesn’t mean houses are selling above the asking price. 

“Last summer, you couldn’t buy anything inside the city limits of Fort Collins for under $500,000,” Hardy said. “There wasn’t anything and now that’s changed a little bit and so there are some homes in the mid-fours that get snapped up relatively quickly. In those highly desirable price points, there’s still quite a bit of activity.”

A busier spring?

Since the fourth quarter, the number of people hoping to get pre-qualified for a mortgage has increased 50%-60%, said Shawn Osthoff, president of Bank of Colorado, which has branches all over the state and is headquartered in Fort Collins. There are seasonal reasons for the uptick in this quarter and the overall number of loans is still lower than a year ago. 

“I think many people have come to the realization that we’re at kind of a new normal for mortgage rates and therefore they’re choosing to proceed with a home,” Osthoff said. “We’ll see how strong the demand is this spring, but historically springtime has been a time when people are out looking for a new home and upgrading their house. We expect more activity this spring than we’ve seen in the last six months.”

A home for sale in Frisco on July 14, 2022. Summit County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Prospective buyers are not just gearing up to hunt for a house again; more seem to be opting for a different type of mortgage, an adjustable-rate mortgage. ARMs at Bank of Colorado offer a lower interest rate of 5.875% in the first five years. Borrowers can refinance anytime if rates drop. Comparably, the bank’s 30-year rate is 6.375%, which includes 1% in mortgage points to reduce the interest over the life of the loan. 

“Just trying to save a little bit of interest with the hope that rates might come back down, that’s the thinking here,” he said. “It gives them a chance to buy a home they can afford.”

The Fed-regulated interest rates are expected to decline since inflation is slowing. On Tuesday, the Consumer Price Index for January showed that it cost U.S. households 6.4% more to live, compared to a year ago. That was a smidge lower 6.5% in December and down from 9% in summer. The Fed has already backed off the higher rate increases, dropping to a quarter point hike on Feb. 1 from the several months of three-quarter point increases. 

This, of course, means inflation and interest rates are still rising. But Silverstein, president of Development Research Partners in Littleton, believes consumers are already getting used to it. 

“Consumers will start to adapt, will start to expect those slightly higher interest rates given that we still have people moving into this state,” Silverstein said. “We still have a lot of folks that have put off housing purchases (and saying) ‘OK, a 5% to 6% mortgage rate is not outrageous. We just need to take it into consideration as we’re planning for future purchases.’ Consumers are still out there.”

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...