Condo market reflects changing landscape

The mortgage crisis and other factors are slowing sales on Dorchester's condominium market. Dorchester's digs are getting cheaper and taking longer to sell on average. Local realtors say Dorchester's public image might also be to blame, while some areas with good locations are still selling well.

"The game has changed a lot," said 27-year-old Justin Green, a local realtor. "The big problem we have right now is the crisis in the mortgage industry. The consumer is confused right now. I'm finding that even when they're presented with a silver platter amazing deal, they're still not pulling the trigger."

That crisis is dumping more single-families, condos and three-deckers onto the market, giving some streets the appearance of ghost towns. Out of 87 foreclosures recorded on the Suffolk County Deeds website in October, almost half were inside Dorchester's borders.

The reaction to the crisis is also slowing sales, because mortgage companies facing new regulations are turning away higher-risk borrowers. "They've really tightened up on that," said Green.

Another aspect of the crisis is a particular type of fraud, which Julie Simmons of Jack Conway Realty calls "equity stripping," but is far more aggressive than other schemes that go by the same name.

"They buy a three-decker house at $600,000, then they get three people to buy condos which have been appraised at $300,000 each," said Simmons. "They've made $900,000 in two months, and everybody walks away. The guy that buys doesn't make a payment. The buyer is in on it, the appraiser is in on it, and the mortgage lender is in on it. They do it in neighborhoods where people aren't really up on reading the Banker & Tradesman like I do."

Whatever the reasons, there are a lot more condos on the market. In 2004, 241 listings were offered on Nov. 17. On the same date this year, there were exactly double that number at 482. Also in 2004 at this time of year, a condo took an average of 76 days to sell. Now it averages 127. Numbers for the rest of the city's neighborhoods vary, but most agree that Dorchester locations have been a bit rougher for condo sellers than most.

"A lot of sellers that bought high are trying to sell and get their money back out of it," said Green. "At the same time there is new development, mostly three-deckers that were bought and converted with plenty of room in their margins to adjust to these prices.

Average sale prices are continuing to drop, as is the overall number and volume of condo sales. The average sale price for the past year - Nov. 17 to Nov.17- is roughly $290,826, compared to $299,726 the previous year. Overall sales volume for the same two periods has dropped from $176,239,013 the previous year to $156,464,426 this past year.

The trend might seem ominous for those bringing large condo developments online, such as The Carruth mixed-use building in Peabody Square. Last month, At Home Realty agent Larry Gettings told attendees of a St. Mark's Area Main Streets meeting that only three condos were under agreement so far, and that number hadn't changed at the time of press. The number is low, but the developer, Trinity Financial, has not opened a model unit to show to potential buyers yet. Many agents remain positive about low- and high-end offerings in general, and particularly about The Carruth, which falls in what most consider to be a low to middle category.

"I actually feel very optimistic about that one specifically," said John A. Keith, a real estate agent that maintains the Boston Real Estate Blog. "Some people don't like that it has a mix of rent and condos, but I think it was an awesome idea. It's a great use of space."

"Some of the higher-ups at Trinity Financial live a couple of blocks away from the The Carruth," said an agent who would prefer to be known only as his brand, the Boston Condo Guy. "They're standing behind it, they want it built, and they want to see it successful. Given that, I think there's a lot of confidence out there."

Other, smaller developments are being proposed on Banton Street, Boston Street, and other locations, but developers aren't pushing as hard to get their product on the market quickly as they were a few years ago.

"There's no need to hurry things," said Mark Foley, an agent for Colm Dunphy, who is proposing 23 new condos at 15 Banton St.

According to Green, the neighborhood has always been burdened by media reports about its more violent sections, but other Dot locations never seem to lose their attraction.

"Savin Hill, Jones Hill, obviously these do very well," said Green. "It really is the whole East side of Dorchester along the Red Line. A lot of people are looking for access to the T, for resale value and everything else."

And in the last two weeks, both Green's and Simmons' offices are unloading large chunks of their inventory. It could be an anomaly, it could be the season, or it could be buyers waking up to smell the low interest rates and good prices, said both realtors.