Military helps home sales continue rise in Jefferson, Lewis counties

Buoyed by military families at Fort Drum, 2012 residential home sales in Jefferson and Lewis counties continued a strong climb since 2008.

As the number of homes sold went up, so did the prices, especially in Lewis County, where the median price last year was 37 percent higher than five years ago.

In Jefferson County:

? The number of units sold rose from 666 in 2008 to 955 in 2012.

? The median price increased 11.4 percent during the same period, from $134,600 to $150,000.

In Lewis County, the figures were more striking:

? The number of units sold nearly doubled, from 90 to 177 over the five-year period.

? The median price shot up 37 percent, from $80,120 to $110,000.

In contrast, St. Lawrence County saw little change:

? Home sales totaled 591 in 2008 and 590 in 2012.

? The median price inched up 2.6 percent, from $78,000 to $80,000.

Sales were made by 325 members of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors and 195 members of the St. Lawrence County Board of Realtors.

“Part of this trend is the awareness on the part of military families and others that right now is the time to buy,” said Lance M. Evans, executive officer for the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors and the St. Lawrence County Board of Realtors. “We now have lower interest rates, and people are feeling good about the economy. Making mortgage payments on houses is often less than paying for rent.”

A main contributor to the rising tide in annual home sales, Mr. Evans said, are fewer and shorter deployments overseas among military members at Fort Drum. Military families are more apt to purchase houses if they are staying in the area longer during the year. Deployments that used to be more than a year long are now seven to nine months, which makes buying homes more attractive.

There are now 10,690 soldiers with families stationed at Fort Drum, 7,056 of whom are living off the post, according to a December housing study conducted at the post.

“Before, if I was gone for 15 months, my spouse was probably going to move out of the area,” Mr. Evans said. “But if I’m gone for nine months in January, it doesn’t make sense to take my kids out of school for five months and then put them back into the same school in October. I’m going to stick around.”

Another reason for military families to purchase homes here, Mr. Evans said, is finding apartments in the greater Watertown area is still a challenge. The vacancy rate for rental housing in the Fort Drum region hovers at 2 percent, he said, while a healthy rate for a housing market is considered to be 4 to 5 percent.

“The vacancy rate is still significantly lower than what a healthy market should be,” he said. “It’s much harder for military families to find rental housing than it is a home for sale.”

Mr. Evans said the steady population growth in Jefferson County has created a stable demand for housing that isn’t present in other regions of the state. When the national housing bubble burst in 2006, for example, the number of foreclosures in New York state was relatively low compared with most of the country. Nationwide, he said, New York consistently has been ranked 45th in number of foreclosures. The low foreclosure rate has helped keep housing prices stable here, he said, while they’ve decreased in other parts of the country that were hit with higher foreclosure rates.

New houses continued to be built in 2012 to meet demand at Fort Drum, Mr. Evans said, and many homeowners are renovating houses to increase their value. Those trends also have kept median home prices up.

Statewide, residential housing prices saw a boost compared with 2011, said Sal Prividera Jr., director of communications for the New York State Association of Realtors. The association has not released 2012 numbers yet, he said, but statistics through 11 months of the year indicated an increase in sales and median home prices.

“We saw low interest rates on mortgages all year, and the economy made small strides toward recovery,” he said. “People were more comfortable getting back into the housing market, and low interest rates gave consumers more buying power to make their homes more affordable.”

He called the steady increase in sales in Jefferson and Lewis counties an example of how the military communities can have a major impact on housing markets. “It’s unique because you have military families constantly moving in and out, and some are in the position to purchase off-base housing.”

Mr. Prividera said he expects the state’s housing industry to continue growing in 2013.

“Housing inventory is down statewide, so we’re seeing median price growth,” he said. “We expect to see continued low mortgage rates.”

Through November, the number of closed sales in the state climbed 4 percent, from 7,036 to 7,320, compared with the same 11-month period in 2011. Over that time, the median home price jumped 4 percent, from $206,800 in 2011 to $215,000 in 2012.

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times staff writer