Homebuyers are venturing into the housing market in increasing numbers, leading to expectations that the long slump in sales in many parts of the country is ending.
Lower mortgage-interest rates, the end of the gulf war and a perception that prices are as low as they're going to get have all contributed to the surge, real estate officials say.But some experts add a cautionary note: They don't expect a quick recovery in real estate, because there are lingering problems in the general economy.
Nevertheless, the sight of large numbers of customers has revived real-estate offices on both coasts, especially in cities that were hit hard by the downturn.
Realtors report that so far this year the number of pending sales - in which an offer to buy has been accepted but not yet closed - is up 65 percent compared to the same period last year.
"It's really something," said spokeswoman Anne Rendle.
"Activity has definitely picked up," said Mark Morano, spokesman for the New York Association of Realtors. He said real-estate agents are reporting "the best February and March they have had in a couple of years."
Interest also has picked up on the West Coast, especially in California. And even in states that haven't experienced a real slump, low interest rates and increased confidence are bringing out more potential buyers.
Mike Owen, president of the Florida Association of Realtors, said sales in his state have been steady for the past two years and his expectation is that 1991 will be somewhat better - but not spectacular.
"We'll see a pleasant increase, but we won't see a doubling of sales," he said.
David Olson, a real estate analyst with SMR Research in Columbia, Md., said that while the home-sales market has improved, he expects the recovery to be slow rather thandramatic.
Olson noted that unemployment is still rising, auto sales are slow and retail sales are stagnant. "This is going to be a slow upturn," he said.
Is this a good time to buy a house?
"I think there are a lot of bargains," Olson said. "If you need space and want a home, then yes, this might be a good time to buy. I think we're maybe a little past the bottom of the cycle."
But he said home buyers shouldn't expect the high rates of price appreciation that occurred in housing during the 1970s and early '80s. The consensus among many economists, he said, is for "very slow appreciation" over the next decade.
While that won't please homeowners, it will give would-be buyers a better chance to get into the market. Despite the recent downturn in prices, many buyers still are having trouble coming up with enough money to buy a house on both coasts.
For example, you'd need an income of about $75,000 to qualify for a conventional 9.5 percent mortgage on the median-priced $210,000 house in Los Angeles, assuming you could come up with $21,000 for a 10 percent down payment. Monthly mortgage payments would be almost $1,600, not counting real estate taxes and insurance.
The latest Census figures available show that fewer than 6 percent of American households have incomes of $75,000 or more, which means most people couldn't afford to buy a middle-priced house in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is exceptionally expensive, but it's not alone - the median home price is above $100,000 in 25 major urban centers, including most of the big cities and their suburbs on both coasts, as well as Chicago, Reno, Nev., and the Palm Beach-Boca Raton area of Florida.
On the other hand, many cities have homes within the price range of the average family.
Those with an annual income of $30,000 probably could afford a house in the $80,000 range, which is close to the median price in these cities: St. Louis;Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio; Birmingham, Ala.,; Nashville, Tenn.; Portland, Ore.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y.