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UTAH HIT HARD BY A CHILL IN HOME SALES

Utah was among the states hardest hit by a drought in home sales and new housing starts during the first quarter of this year - a phenomenon local real estate agents and contractors are blaming on bad weather and rising mortgage rates.

Nationally, rising mortgage rates are being blamed for low home sales in expensive Northeast cities, but booming West Coast markets weathered the storm, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday.First-quarter housing sales for 1989 in Utah declined 27.7 percent over the fourth quarter of 1988. Sales dipped 12.71 percent compared with the same period in 1988.

Scott Webber, president of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, said he was disappointed by the slow start, particularly when the previous quarter experienced a 21.5 percent increase to close out 1988.

"I have to believe that the cold, snowy weather we had in January and February took its toll on the number of people looking for homes," Webber said.

A total of 982 single-family homes sold during the first three months of 1989, a 12.71 percent decrease from the 1,125 homes sold last year during the same period.

Austin Sargent, research analyst of the the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said new housing starts dipped 5 percent during the first quarter of 1989, compared to last year's figures.

"The main factor for the first quarter was the rise in interest rates. Also, the real cold February we had really hindered construction," Sargent said.

But in sunny California, real estate is booming.

The median price of an existing home in the San Francisco area soared to $243,900 in the first quarter, meaning half sold for more and half sold for less. That represented a 31.8 percent increase from a year ago and was the steepest appreciation rate among 83 metropolitan areas surveyed by the trade group.

In fact, California accounted for the top five appreciation rates in the nation. Home prices in Orange County, which includes Anaheim and Santa Ana, shot up 30.2 percent to a median of $237,900. In Los Angeles, prices rose 26.3 percent to $201,000; San Diego, 21.9 percent to $163,900; and Riverside-San Bernardino, 21.6 percent to $116,000.

That compares with the 3.4 percent increase to $91,600 for the median-priced existing home for the entire United States.

The Commerce Department, in a report issued Tuesday, said housing construction fell 2.7 percent in April to the lowest level in more than six years.

Northeastern cities continued to be some of the most expensive places to live, but home prices in New York City and its suburbs; Boston and Worcester, Mass.; and Hartford and New Haven, Conn., either fell or rose only modestly.

The five least expensive areas in the country were: Peoria, Ill., $42,000; Spokane, Wash., $50,200; Mobile, Ala., $50,900; Oklahoma City, $52,300; and Akron, Ohio, $56,000.

The Realtors said the pace of existing home sales lagged nationally and in most states, although several states with low-cost housing areas managed to buck the trend.

West Virginia showed the greatest sales pickup, 61.3 percent, followed by South Dakota, 43.5 percent; North Dakota, 27.1 percent; Washington, 22.3 percent; and Vermont, 21.6 percent.

States that suffered losses, besides Utah, were Alaska, 40.6 percent; Louisiana, 23.8 percent; Iowa, 20.2 percent; and Minnesota, 17.7 percent.