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There are more houses for sale in Niagara Falls than local real estate experts can ever recall.

About 800 for-sale signs dot the streets of the Cataract City, on the lawns of every kind of dwelling, from a modest ranch to a graceful large brick multiple-tenant building, according to multiple listing services.

Although in the past, the average residential property sold in three months, many houses now languish on the market for more than a year. Most are selling at $20,000 below their market value and some cannot be sold at any price, real estate agents say.

"Listings are at an all-time high. The market is saturated," said Maureen Tilkins, an agent with Metro Paradiso Realty, 1323 Pine Ave. "Sellers are not even getting what they paid for their houses years ago. It's a shame."

Prices vary widely. A recent sampling of 130 listings showed houses ranging in price from $500, for an abandoned HUD house on LaSalle Avenue at 17th Street, to $92,800 for a house on Jerauld Avenue -- Mayor James C. Galie's neighborhood. The average price of the homes for sale was $40,000.

The exact number of houses in Niagara Falls is not counted, but city officials do say that there are 19,525 parcels of property subject to homestead taxes. These parcels may be home sites or simply vacant lots.

Although prices of commercial properties don't fluctuate as dramatically as residential, commercial prices in the city are also down. A typical building on revitalized Pine Avenue that went on the market 1 1/2 years ago at $69,900 is down to $59,000, said Michael A. Johnson, the commercial manager in Niagara County for Stovroff & Potter.

"There are quite a few buildings on Main Street at declining prices," he said, referring to the once-thriving thoroughfare now full of closed storefronts and abandoned buildings.

The bottom line, residentially and commercially: It's a buyer's market and prices are rock bottom.

In fact, a person with $2 billion to spare could buy all residential, commercial and tax-exempt properties in the City of Niagara Falls, according to City Assessor Dominic L. Penale Jr.

Housing prices in the inner city have dropped 50 percent in the past six years, said Michael J. Hooper, owner of Hooper Realty Inc., 742 Main Street, and president of the Niagara Frontier Association of Realtors. Prices of homes outside the city core have dropped 15 percent in the last two years, he said.

Hooper said the 700 to 800 homes currently listed for sale in Niagara Falls stay on the market for an average of 220 days, a little more than seven months. Many take a year or more to sell. In better days, the average selling time of a home was within 90 days, he said.

The reason, said Hooper, is the continued loss of population. "We are still feeling the losses of jobs from companies like Carborundum, Goodyear and General Abrasive," he said.

The several hundred jobs that have been filled in the city since TeleTech, the Denver-based customer service telecommunications outfit, opened in December 1997 have had little impact on the housing market here because many of the employees live in the Buffalo area, said Hooper.

Homes that sold for $65,000 in Niagara Falls when the market was hot in the early 1990s now sell for $45,000, real estate agents said.

Even bargain basement prices get slashed further. Ms. Tilkins had a house on 59th Street in the LaSalle area that started out at $29,900, dropped to $24,900 and finally sold for $15,000, just over half of its original asking price.

"It needed a ton of work, but it had potential," she said. "Even if you put in another $15,000 on new siding, windows and other renovations, you've got a darling little house."

Even in the upscale areas, sellers take a beating. Ms. Tilkins listed a house for $89,000 in the DeVeaux section of the city, knocked it down to $82,000 after several months and finally sold it for $76,000 after a year.

Ms. Tilkins was forthright about her transactions -- perhaps because she does very well in the business -- but many real estate agents who have had houses on the market for up to a year weren't so forthcoming.

"We don't want it quoted that we can't sell a house, because it's obviously bad publicity," said an agent who didn't want to be named.

Similarly, owners whose homes have been on the market for many months didn't want to be interviewed for the same reason.

"Why would I stand in front of my house and advertise the fact that I can't sell it?" said one owner. "People will think there must be something wrong with it and I'll never sell it."

On the other hand, Ms. Tilkins sold a house in LaSalle in three days -- mainly because the owner didn't hesitate to take $7,000 less for it. His decision made sense because a home in the LaSalle area has a good resale value, Ms. Tilkins said. That owner did what all real estate agents agree is the smart thing: Sell at the market value.

On Ms. Tilkens' advice, one of her clients took a two-story, three bedroom house on 101st Street off the market after it sat unsold for six months in order to revamp it and try and make it more attractive to buyers.

That might work in the more desirable LaSalle area of the city, but pouring a lot of money into a home in an area where it has no resale value can be a losing proposition, real estate agents said.

"The most important factor in buying and selling a house is location, location, location -- that controls the price," said Dominic DeFazio, Stovroff & Potter's No. 2 salesman in Niagara County in July and August.

"You can build a mansion in an area where homes are worth $40,000, thinking you can get $100,000 for it, and not even make the purchase price," he said. "You cannot keep adding value in a location where the appraised value would never match the market price."

Stovroff & Potter's No. 1 sales team in Niagara County -- and No. 2 in Western New York -- is the husband-and-wife duo of Carmen and Maria Laurendi, who work out of the firm's Grand Island office.

"No one beats the Laurendis," said Lewis Kline, the manager of Stovroff's Niagara Falls office. "They're very hard workers."

Hard work is definitely what it takes in what Mrs. Laurendi carefully calls a "challenging market."

The couple's track record -- reportedly $9 million in sales in Western New York in the last nine months -- is not typical in an industry that has many real estate agents handing in their keys. Membership in the Niagara Frontier Association of Realtors is running about 100, half what it was a year ago.

Laurendi, who was president of the Niagara Falls Area Board of Realtors (now the Niagara Frontier Association of Realtors) in 1994, remembers the boom years of 1987-88 when there were 1,200 sales a year in Niagara County. Within five years, by about 1993, sales were cut in half to 600, he said.

"And it's never picked up," he said.

One of the reasons is that home owners are loathe to sell their houses at a loss.

"A house is an investment," said Laurendi. "Compromises have to be made in a soft market and a person may have to sell the house for less. But that's not the worst of it. If you hold onto the house, the price may go down further."

Anyone who bought a house in Western New York in the last 10 years is not likely to get back the purchase price in the current market, Laurendi said. And putting more money into it to make it more attractive doesn't help. Laurendi had a client in Sanborn who sank an extra $100,000 into his house and still didn't get back the purchase price.

"Not only are people selling their houses for less than they paid for them, but (they are) even borrowing money to cover the closing costs and other expenses," he said.

"The bright side of this," Laurendi said, "is that what an owner loses on the sale of his house, he will gain on the purchase of another house in the same market."

In the absence of buyers, some real estate agents are convincing owners to rent their houses out and at least make their mortgage payments.

"Owners are getting really desperate just to have tenants," said a real estate agent who now operates a rental agency and didn't want her name used. "The owners then become absentee landlords and move to the Carolinas. If I wasn't stuck here, I'd do the same."

Even buying some of these bargain-basement houses as investment properties doesn't make sense if there's little chance of ever reselling them, she said.

"You can buy a two-family house in Niagara Falls for the price of a two-car garage in an affluent area, but what's the point if you're in an area that no one wants to live in?"

She said her agency has 300 units for rent and little chance of filling them in a city where the population continues to drop and 60 percent of the people live on some form of government assistance.

Metro Paradiso Realty's Ms. Tilkens is one agent who says she's proud of her track record in selling homes.

"Realtors have never stopped doing their best, but you don't know how hard it is to go back to people after a year and tell them you just can't sell their home," she said.

Laurendi, Niagara County's top salesman, has this advice for people trying to sell their homes: Bite the bullet and take the market price.

"Hanging onto a house in the current real estate market is a losing game," Laurendi said. "Because the market is not going up."

Hooper, who has been in the real estate business here for 22 years, said he has seen the cycles come and go. He remembers when interest rates soared to 18 percent in the 1980s.

"We had 5,000 more jobs here then, but those were tough times in the housing market," he said.

Is the current market the worst ever?

"It's starting to look that way," he said.

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