This Bourne home at 32 Weatherdeck Drive is located on about one acre of land and currently available for sale at $555,000, but area Realtors say finding willing sellers is harder than ever.

Listening to local Realtors during the last few years has been a lot like hearing a broken record. It’s the same old story: Not enough homes available for sale but plenty of prospective buyers.

That’s been the case for the last few weeks, even the last few months, during the traditionally busy spring season.

Realtors in most parts of the state are contending with a smaller pool of homes on the sales market, leading them to be more aggressive, diligent and flexible in drawing new listings, according to real estate leaders.

“It’s been getting worse,” said Judy Moore, a broker with Re/Max Premier Properties in Lexington. “Inventory has been shrinking slowly over the last few years.”

How bad is it? According to multiple listing service statistics provided by the Northeast Association of Realtors last week, there were 3,256 homes listed for sale in the 54 cities and towns surrounding Boston last May. As of this month, that number had dropped to 2,695 – a loss of 561 listings or a 17 percent drop.

The story was even worse for Realtors in the 15 cities and towns in the Greater Lowell and Lawrence area, which experienced a 42 percent decrease in listings in a year. As of this month, there were only 896 listings, down from the 1,554 listings in May 2001.

The drop in listings is spurring Moore and other Realtors to use the Internet and newer marketing techniques and incentives to get potential sellers to list with them. While some agents are using the typical methods like sending direct mailings to homeowners and chasing the FSBOs – homes “for sale by owner” – others are also using technology and incentives like discounts at stores and free hotel room stays.

“When there is a limited number of people putting their homes on the market, you have to attract as many of them as possible to maintain your market position,” said Ron Morrison, broker-owner of ERA Morrison Real Estate with offices in Acton, Billerica, Chelmsford, Lowell, Pepperell and Westford.

Morrison said many firms, including his own, have expanded programs and business partnerships, giving buyers and sellers such incentives as cash discounts on major appliances at participating stores, car rentals, hotel rooms, and home warranty protection on new listings.

‘Additional Incentive’

Morrison’s ERA offices also participate in a program that helps buyers and sellers save for their children’s college education. Real estate franchises that participate in the program set aside a portion of the brokerage commission they receive from transactions and give it to sellers and buyers who set up a savings account through a company called Upromise.

“They [incentives] definitely work because the customer is more loyal to the broker because there’s an additional incentive,” said Morrison.

Another strategy that Morrison’s agents have been using lately is contacting sellers who tried to sell their home a year ago but couldn’t because it wasn’t priced right.

Today, agents must also be more flexible when going after FSBOs, he said, offering to provide a menu of services at a fixed cost instead of all the services with a full 5 or 6 percent commission cut.

“Some homeowners don’t want full service,” he explained.

Cold-calling prospective sellers, a more traditional method for getting listings, has taken on a new sense of urgency nowadays.

Lillian Montalto, owner of Lillian Montalto Signature Properties in Andover, said once buyers have qualified their search criteria through her office, agents will identify streets and start calling homeowners telling them they have a buyer who would be interested in purchasing their home.

Other Realtors have put the Internet to good use in their efforts to garner more listings.

For example, Moore gets potential leads e-mailed to her through The Web site is designed for people who are interested in finding out how much their home would sell for.

The users type in basic information about their homes, which is then forwarded to participating agents.

Moore, for example, is forwarded information about homeowners in Lexington who have requested a market analysis on their homes.

“From that, I establish contact with a potential seller, I conduct a CMA [comparative market analysis] from the basic information and from public information that I gather about the property and then I e-mail that [the CMA report] to them directly,” she said.

There are other features tied into the service that allows Moore to stay in contact with individuals.

“It’s a relatively new service that I’ve signed up for in the past two months and has generated quite a few contacts for me but has not developed into a listing yet, although I imagine it will down the line,” she said.

In addition, Moore has her own Web site that features virtual home tours and she even creates compact discs of home tours that she hands out at open houses and mails to buyers.

Those are some of extra services that she tells sellers she can provide, and Moore said she presents extensive pre-marketing plans to prospective clients to convince them to select her as their Realtor.

Christopher E. Coy, president of the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors, said there has definitely been an increase in the level of services that real estate agents provide.

Some Realtors are willing to pay for septic system inspections and even offer lower commissions to attract listings, said Coy, principal of Hyannis-based Realty Executives of Cape Cod.

The listing shortage trend started appearing in the Greater Boston area as early as the mid-1990s, said Moore.

With rising home prices and pent-up buyer demand, homeowners who were thinking of moving to a bigger or more suitable home decided to stay put instead because it was too “cost-prohibitive” to move into another home, she said.

In Greater Boston communities particularly, homeowners increasingly opted to remodel or expand their current home instead of moving on to their next home, according to leading Realtors.

While Moore started seeing the listing shortage problem several years ago in Greater Boston, Realtors on Cape Cod and in Northern Massachusetts said the listing problem has been most noticeable during the last two to three years.

According to several Realtors, it appeared the listing problem was starting to ease late last spring and early summer when the economy started softening, and then again after the Sept. 11 attacks. But that proved to be a temporary lull and with lower interest rates, buyers quickly reemerged.

David S. Drinkwater, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, said the listing shortage trend can be traced back to the late 1980s when the economy was suffering.

By the time the economy started to recover in the mid-1990s, there was pent-up buyer demand. The situation started to get more complicated over the last few years as communities started to restrict, and in some case put moratoriums, on new home construction.

“Scarcity of those listings is creating such havoc in our lives,” said Drinkwater last week at MAR’s annual lobbying day.

The large baby-boomer generation is also feeding into the housing crisis. Many baby boomers in their mid-50s who typically would be thinking about moving into other housing are “staying put” instead, said Drinkwater, because the type of housing they want and can afford isn’t out there and available.

The result is that they’re expanding and renovating their homes, “forever removing” them from the first-time homebuyer market, he said.

The new homes that are being built are 3,000 to 3,500 square feet, not designed or priced for first-time buyers.

“More attention needs to be paid to first-time buyers,” said Drinkwater.

The scarcity of land, higher building fees and costs, and construction restrictions, are even pushing home prices up in traditionally more affordable communities like Methuen and Haverhill.

In Methuen and Haverhill, prices for new homes start in the high $300,000 to $400,000 range, according to Montalto.

In some communities, like Lexington, town officials have even tried to halt home expansions and teardowns, according to Moore. Moore recently headed the Coalition for Private Property Rights, a group that opposed a zoning amendment in Lexington that would prevent owners from tearing down homes and rebuilding them.

The zoning measure was narrowly rejected, but Moore fears that town officials are trying to revive it.

Acute Listings Shortage A Challenge for Agents

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 6 min