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Real estate recovery sounds familiar

The story of this year's economy is told in a mountain of statistics. Some of the most interesting numbers measure the condition of residential real estate markets.

Those markets, the epicenter of our economic woes of the past five years, are obviously important. Thankfully, the news about home sales — both locally and across the country — has turned out to be one of the most upbeat economic developments of the year.

The combination of pent-up demand, relatively low home prices, and incredibly cheap mortgage rates has become a powerful market force. Residential real estate activity is expected to account for more than half of the nation's admittedly weak economic growth over the final three months of this year, according to Pat Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington.


The housing market still has a long way to go, but the economic benefits are spreading beyond homeowners to builders, bankers, and even makers of household appliances.

So where do we go from here? There is no single answer that applies to all markets across the country, but real estate activity around Massachusetts this year offers an interesting hint about our local future.

Trace 2012 home sales in Massachusetts and the pattern starts to look a lot like the state's residential market as it began to recover from the local real estate depression of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The good news: That recovery stuck. The bad news: It took seven years from that point for home prices to recover.

Sales volume is rising more than 20 percent this year, and the statewide inventory of homes has fallen sharply. But median prices have remained completely flat or increased very modestly, depending on whose reports you read.

In most economic markets, rising sales and falling inventories usually put pressure on prices. Oddly, that's not happening to residential real estate in Massachusetts so far.


And it didn't happen here 20 years ago, either.

"We had exactly the same thing back in the '90s," said Tim Warren, chief executive of Warren Group in Boston. "We had two years of increasing sales volume before median prices started to edge up."

I take some comfort in that echo. Otherwise, I'd worry that the failure of home prices to rise under current conditions signals another stall ahead. The experience of two decades past suggests that's not necessarily so. In fact, it may be a normal part of a long, difficult recovery.

So what's actually happening right now? I asked a variety of real estate experts and most pointed to potential sellers who remain reluctant to list their homes at current prices. The inventory of motivated sellers — pressed by the threat of foreclosure and a hundred other factors — has met much of the demand this year. But that supply of homes for sale is getting short.

Statewide inventory amounted to 8.9 months of supply in October of last year, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. That figure has fallen more than 43 percent to 5.1 months this October, and that's reason to worry.

"If we don't have more inventory to put out there, buyers who really want to buy won't," said Trisha McCarthy, president of the realtors association.

No doubt you've heard stories about homes getting snapped up in no time, often for more than listed prices. That reflects a thin inventory of attractive properties current owners are reluctant to put on the market.


McCarthy recently led a routine conference call among association leaders spread across the state and she said 14 of 16 expressed concern about the inventory available for sale in their local markets. "Most of them used the word 'fragile'," she said.

There are other, big-picture reasons to fret about the real estate recovery, above and beyond inventory issues. Wellesley College economist Chip Case did not sound very optimistic the other day.

"I think school is still out about whether people believe home ownership is a good idea anymore," he told me. "There are just a lot of reasons to be cautious."

With the consequences of the last housing bubble, caution is good advice. But the Massachusetts real estate recovery of 2012 looks a lot like our rocky road out of the collapse of the 1990s.

That's good news for buyers and owners with patience.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.