Early Briefing: Fairfax Home Prices Tick Up

* Home sales in Fairfax County rose 10.7 percent last month, the county's first double-digit increase in a year and a half, according to the most recent data from the company that tracks local real estate listings.

The flurry of sales activity suggests that prices have dropped low enough to lure buyers to the Washington area's largest county. But the uptick in sales is not widespread throughout the region, and unemployment data for August show a steady slowdown in the region's economy.

"The big unknown is to what extent the financial trauma we've seen in the news in the past week has scared buyers away," said Barry Merchant, senior policy analyst at the Virginia Housing Development Authority. "We know it has shaken people's confidence in the economy and their own personal situations."

Fairfax's median sales price was $375,000 in August -- meaning half the homes sold for more and half for less. That's nearly a 22 percent drop since August 2007. The last time prices fell lower was in April 2004, said John McClain, a senior fellow at George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

"Perhaps we've seen enough cut out of prices to see a return to normalcy," McClain said. "We're seeing buyers move back in from the sidelines in the past few months."

Sales have dropped in Fairfax each month since March 2007 until they went flat in May and June, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, the local multiple listing service. Sales rose 8 percent in July.

The trend contrasts sharply with almost every other county in the region, except for Prince William and Loudoun counties, both of which have been devastated by an unusually high share of aggressively priced foreclosures. Sales in those counties have been climbing for a few months as buyers have been snapping up deals.

In Prince William, the number of homes sold shot up 100 percent last month as prices plummeted nearly 42 percent since last year to $251,384. In Loudoun prices dropped 24.6 percent to $335,000, and sales rose by 28 percent.

Meanwhile, unemployment in both Virginia and Maryland rose 0.2 percent in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The jobless rate in Virginia rose to 4.6 percent, the highest since January 1996, and Maryland to 4.5 percent, the highest since December 2003, experts say. Unemployment in the District fell by 0.2 percent, to 7 percent. The national average is 6.1 percent and represents a 1.3 percent increase from August 2007.

"There is emerging weakness in the economy that will persist 12 months, perhaps longer," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group, an economic and policy consulting firm based in Baltimore.

"The economy is not enjoying any kind of relief," added Basu, who keeps tabs on Maryland's data. "We are rolling from one crisis to another."

Unemployment in Northern Virginia has risen from 2.3 percent in July 2007 to 3.4 percent in July 2008. Jobs are up in contracting, hospitality, government and health care, but down in construction, telecommunications and transportation, said William F. Mezger, chief economist at the Virginia Employment Commission.

"This summer, transportation turned negative because the airlines started cutting flight crews," Mezger said. "What's surprising in a good area like Northern Virginia, the duration of unemployment is several weeks longer than not-so-good areas."

* Circuit City Chief Executive Philip J. Schoonover stepped down Monday as the Richmond-based retailer struggles to find a buyer and faces millions of dollars in losses.

In his place, the company's board of directors named fellow board member James Marcum acting president and chief executive. Marcum joined the board in June and is a former executive of merchant banking firm Tri-Artisan Capital Partners.

Annette Nazareth. Photo by Jamie Rose - Bloomberg News

* Former Securities and Exchange Commission member Annette L. Nazareth, left, joined Davis Polk & Wardwell as a partner in the law firm's District office.

Nazareth will advise broker-dealers and other clients on regulatory and enforcement issues. She worked at the SEC for more than a decade overseeing markets and was appointed as a Democrat to the five-member commission by President Bush in 2005.

* Officials at Adventist HealthCare announced plans Monday to turn the hospital's Takoma Park campus into a health center with emergency and primary care and community amenities such as a gymnasium and pool once the current hospital moves north to the Calverton-White Oak area of Montgomery County.

The 13-acre site would become a "village of health and well being," Adventist President William G. Robertson said, combining traditional medical services with a wellness center that in addition to the pool and gym would include a rock-climbing wall.

In addition, the campus could offer assisted living facilities for senior citizens and expanded outpatient rehabilitation services, he said. Officials also want to take advantage of the hospital's current proximity to Columbia Union College to create classroom space and find other ways the hospital can more closely partner with its counterparts in higher education, they said.

By Dan Beyers  |  September 23, 2008; 8:39 AM ET  | Category:  Economy Watch
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