AS the number of house, condominium and villa foreclosures drops and sales increase in Beaufort County, experts are expressing cautious optimism that the local housing market is on the rebound.
The number of residential homes, condos and villas sold was up 20 percent in January 2012, when 220 units were sold, from January 2011, when 183 units were sold.
Additionally, the number of foreclosure filings in Beaufort County dropped by 39 percent in January 2012, when there were 184 filings, from January 2011, when there were 304 filings, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based firm that tracks national and local foreclosure filings, which consist of auction notices, bank repossessions and default notices.
John Robinson, president of the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors and a Realtor with Dunes Marketing Group, said as of Feb. 20, there were 16 foreclosed houses and 12 foreclosed condos listed for sale on Hilton Head Island.
He recently had a customer who wanted to see foreclosed properties in Palmetto Dunes.
"We didn't have a single foreclosure for sale there," Robinson said. "That surprised them because so many other places have such high foreclosure rates."
Robinson characterized the mood in the local real estate community as "a sense of cautious optimism."
"Statistics show our area has not been inundated with foreclosures," he said.
South Carolina as a whole is still struggling, however. It was ranked 15th among states in January foreclosure filings.
Lowcountry Realtors say one of the reasons the local market hasn't suffered as much as many other places in South Carolina is that Beaufort County is still a beautiful place to live.
"Your location is still very desirable," said RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist. "People still want to live in that area. And it does seem that Beaufort County is past the absolute peak of July 2010, when there were 418 foreclosure filings."
There are, however, still challenges ahead for the local real estate market.
"It's still going to be a rough road because of some of the delays in foreclosure processing," Blomquist said. "Beaufort County is probably past the worst of it, but it may be a bumpy ride forward over the next year or two as the market absorbs the houses that have had foreclosure filings."
That means a possible increase in inventory.
"There's been a small decrease in inventory, but inventory is still too high," said James Wedgeworth of Charter 1 Realty & Marketing. "But I'm telling people that it's a great time to buy because we've got a good selection and prices are low." On Hilton Head, for instance, the median price of residential houses, condos and villas was $250,000 in January 2011, and $238,750 in January 2012.
One of the issues facing the Beaufort County housing market is that many people need to sell homes up north in order to buy here.
"It does affect us when the Smiths have to sell their property in Ohio to buy here. It makes it hard for them to sell and purchase," Robinson said. "We have a tough time helping people with that because we're not in their market."
When people do want to buy, there are new challenges for Realtors.
Jean Beck, executive vice president of the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors, said, "While our Realtors are leading the state when it comes to sales and we have an improved market, they have to work hard to keep transactions together."
That's because financing and credit have definitely tightened up.
"Realtors have to be informed on all the changes in the market and they have to be ready to take on these challenges," Beck said. "They're dealing with the emotions, financing and motivation challenges in order to get to a final outcome, which is to own a house."
But there is reason to stay optimistic.
"We were one of the last markets to drop when all this started back in 2006," Robinson said. "And we expect that we'll be one of the first to rebound."
Several programs have been created to help homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure. Most are administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Details: www.hud.gov/foreclosure