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Housing sales better near bases

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Sometimes Tim Wells felt like the only man left on his street.

Thousands of soldiers were deployed out of Fort Campbell, Ky., just a few miles away, and homes in Wells' subdivision were sitting empty. But a few months later, the soldiers began to return and, one by one, the homes were quickly purchased.

"They all started selling, boom-boom-boom, right down the line, as people rotated in," said Wells, who was a civilian contractor working on the base. "It was a pretty clear pattern."

While overall national home prices and sales are down, there are pockets in the United States that are doing well. Among them are military towns dominated by big bases, helped by steady wartime employment and by more moderate increases in values and less reckless lending than many boom areas saw during the bubble.

A review of housing data in states with big military bases found nearby communities fared better than national averages. Some towns have even seen average home prices rise, bolstered by increased recruitment and steady defense-related employment during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even where prices are down, the bases still help provide plenty of people looking to buy.

Sales figures have been examined from selected smaller communities near large bases in the Southeast, which has a major military presence, and in North Dakota, away from the balmier climates that might attract new residents.

In the case of Clarksville, the largest city near the sprawling Army post that straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky line, more than 30,000 soldiers assigned to the base rotate in and out regularly. Many come with families in tow or return from a deployment looking for a quiet place to call home in or around the city of 113,000.

When Wells got a job transfer, he had no trouble selling his home and closed on the deal in August.

"From the time we listed it, we got an offer in eight days," he said.

Not bad, considering the National Association of Realtors estimates that nationally it will take nearly 10 months at the current rate of sales to work through the entire housing inventory.

Average home prices in the United States fell a record 4.8 percent during the second quarter compared with a year ago, with some areas such as California and Nevada falling between 14 and 16 percent, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight.

But in Clarksville, the average sales prices for single family homes increased about 6 percent, from $139,065 to $147,460 during the second quarter of 2008 compared with a year ago, according to the Clarksville Association of Realtors.

Military communities haven't totally avoided the problems in the housing market, and on average it's taking longer for home sellers to find a buyer. In Clarksville, homes sat on the market for an average of 96 days during the second quarter of 2008 compared with 65 days a year ago.

Valerie Hunter-Kelly, a Clarksville real estate agent whose husband is retired from the Army, deals with mostly Army families who move to the area.

"We have a fantastic market here," she said. "I do networking with agents across the country, and we are very fortunate to have the market we have here. Our average sales price is actually going up."

In Fayetteville, N.C., a city of 168,000 outside Fort Bragg, sale prices are down slightly this year for new homes but higher for the larger stock of existing homes. Second-quarter figures were unavailable, but for the year through Sept. 30 the average price for an existing home was up 5.2 percent to $130,355 from a year earlier while new home prices were down 1.7 percent to $204,910.

While other markets tanked after homeowners took subprime loans that they couldn't afford, active and retired members of the military can use private loans guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 90 percent of VA loans don't require down payments, said Judy Caden, director of the loan guarantee service.

"Right now we are the only program left that provides the 'no down payment' feature, except for some localized programs," Caden said.

The VA says home loans have increased about 34 percent over the past fiscal year. The VA also provides assistance to borrowers who go into default and face foreclosure with repayment and restructuring plans.

The market in some military communities probably will pick up soon, too, though it will come at the expense of others. Some bases are expecting additional troops through a military-wide base closing and realignment plan.

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