Real estate 

Feeling for the bottom

The Missoula Organization of Realtors (MOR) has tallied its 2010 market data, and the number of home sales in the urban area has dropped 42 percent since the peak in 2006, while home values have dropped nearly 7 percent since 2007.

But not every Missoula homeowner has reason to be depressed. Larry Swanson, economist with the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, points out that it's the high end of the market that continues to absorb the brunt of the housing downturn, while homeowners on the lower end are, relatively speaking, sitting pretty.

"What some people think is that home values are falling," Swanson says. "No, when you get into those low and moderate ranges, they're not falling, they're holding. But we're losing the upper side of the market. So [the median home price], that scale, gets shifted."

MOR's data shows the median home price in 2010 was $202,500, down from $208,000 in 2009 and $216,950 in 2007. It counts the number of sales at 830, down from 913 in 2009 and 1,443 in 2006.

Beyond the bifurcated market, there are other nuances the raw data miss. Perhaps most notably, the low-end market got stirred in the first half of 2010 by the federal first-time homebuyer tax credit. When the credit expired, Missoula's median home price stood at $197,250, according to MOR President Brint Whalberg. In the subsequent months, market activity became more balanced across the price spectrum, boosting the median home price as low-end volume dropped without the federal incentive, Whalberg explains.

In any event, Missoula's market, however flat, may have arrived at a "sustainable" level of annual sales, Whalberg says.

"On a monthly basis it's going to be fascinating to track over the next six months, because that's going to give us a real clear picture," Whalberg says. "If we see the median price continuing to be lower than it was last year, that's going to show that we're going to see values continue to slide down. But if it stays at it or above it, it's a good holding pattern, and it's going to show that maybe we're seeing a little value recovery in our market."

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