A for sale sign in Naples, Maine, on June 13. Credit: Lori Valigra

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Sales of single-family homes rose a modest amount in March, affected by the coronavirus pandemic though prices continued to be strong, according to data released Tuesday by the Maine Association of Realtors.

Home sales rose a tepid 0.36 percent compared to March 2019. But the median sales price for the 1,124 homes sold was $227,950, up 8.55 percent over the year’s period. The median sales price indicates that half of the homes were sold for more and half for less.

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The figures follow record-breaking sales in 2019. Sales remained strong in January, rising to a 20-year high, and remained high through February. The month included sales both before and after the state started shutting down business activities because of the coronavirus and Gov. Janet Mills declared a civil state of emergency.

Sales contracts, another key measure of real estate activity, showed a sharp decline starting in mid-March through mid-April, when businesses were shut down, according to figures from the MLS national real estate database.

The recent data show the Maine real estate industry “has been robust prior to the coronavirus pandemic,” Tom Cole, president of the Maine Association of Realtors, said. In a statement, he said realtors are following government orders and public health safety precautions.

“We expect impacts to Maine’s real estate industry as a result of the public health emergency, depending on its intensity and duration,” Cole said.

Four of Maine’s 16 counties saw home sales rise more than 20 percent in the three months from January to March 2020 compared to that same timeframe in 2019. Aroostook, Kennebec, Knox and Washington counties all saw unit sales price rises of more than 20 percent. Franklin County saw the large median sales price increase at 31.7 percent to $154,750.

Knox County experienced the highest unit sales rise of close to 37 percent, with 104 homes sold. Prices also rose 3.9 percent to $240,000.

In Cumberland County, unit sales rose 2.5 percent to 655 homes sold at a median sales price of $317,250, up 9 percent. In February, sales had risen 20 percent to 770 homes from December 2019 to February 2020 compared to the same months the prior years.

Penobscot County saw a 9 percent rise in home sales to 314 units with a median sales price up 8.9 percent to $147,000. Previously, it had seen a rise of 21 percent to 350 homes in the December 2019 to February 2020 period over the same three months the prior years, with a median sales price of $155,150, up almost 15 percent.

Nationally, existing home sales also were up by 0.8 percent this March compared to March 2019. But they fell 8.5 percent to 5.3 million units in March after large gains nationwide in February, according to the National Association of Realtors.

“Unfortunately, we knew home sales would wane in March due to the coronavirus outbreak,” Lawrence Yun, the national association’s chief economist, said. “More temporary interruptions to home sales should be expected in the next couple of months, though home prices will still likely rise.”

Home prices rose over the previous year for the 97th straight month in March, with the median existing home price up 8 percent from March 2019 at $280,600.

The amount of housing inventory on the market at the end of March was 1.5 million units, up 2.7 percent from February, but down 10.2 percent from one year ago.

“Earlier in the year, we watched inventory gradually tick upward but with the current quarantine recommendations in place, fewer sellers are listing homes, which will limit buyer choices,” Yun said. “Significantly more listings are needed and more will come on to the market once the economy steadily reopens.”

The national realtor group’s most recent Flash Survey showed that 93 percent of sellers changed their behavior to help the homebuying transaction move forward with social distancing and necessary precautions. Realtors conducted virtual open home tours and closings were done via e-signings. Also helping were low mortgage rates, so first-time buyers were able to purchase homes, Yun said.

According to Freddie Mac, the average rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage decreased to 3.45 percent in March. That’s down from the average rate 3.94 percent in 2019.

Existing home sales in the Northeast in March 2020 fell 7.1 percent to an annual rate of 650,000. The median price was $300,400, up 8.3 percent from March 2019.