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Early 2020 might be the downtown Boston housing market’s highwater mark for a while

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There were price records galore for the three months ended March 30—but the signs of change are there

A row of apartment buildings as viewed from a across a cobblestone square. Shutterstock

Downtown Boston home prices ascended to fresh records in the first quarter of 2020, but the signs are there that these figures might represent a highwater mark for sellers, their brokers, and developers. The novel coronavirus pandemic is seeing to that.

First the numbers. Every substantial price measure for downtown Boston condo sales hit records for the three months ended March 30, according to a new report from appraiser Miller Samuel and brokerage Douglas Elliman. The report (not online yet) covered closed deals in Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Charlestown, Fenway, Midtown (a.k.a. Downtown Crossing), the North End, the Seaport District, South Boston, the South End, and the West End.

The average condo sales price increased 40.4 percent compared with the first quarter of 2019, to $1,581,395, and the average price per square foot increased 29.1 percent, to $1,270. The median sales price—probably the best measure as it’s not skewed by one or two mega-deals—increased 24.46 percent annually, to $1,007,500 (yes, have the condos in downtown Boston sold for more than $1 million).

Lest you think these much higher numbers compared with early last year dissuaded buyers, well, you’re wrong. The number of downtown Boston condo sales rose 10.9 percent, to 540.

But there is a sign of the coronavirus’ effects on the seemingly strong market, and that comes via listing inventory. The number of available condos for sale dropped 10 percent, to 414, with most of that drop-off coming in late March, after the Boston region started to shut down due to the newly declared pandemic.

That quarterly rise in the rate of condo listing inventory, in fact, dropped by nearly two-thirds toward the end of March, according to Miller Samuel and Douglas Elliman. This decline in available condos to choose from reflects other recent stats that show recent cliff-drops in listings—especially newer ones—in downtown Boston and around the region.

There was a similar decline in inventory for downtown Boston townhouses, according to the report. It was down 11.4 percent annually, to 31, and the rate of the climb in inventory ahead of the traditionally busy spring market fell be nearly one-third.

At the same time, though, townhouses joined condos in setting fresh milestones during the quarter. The median sales price increased 19.8 percent, to $1,617,500, and the average price was up 9.4 percent, to $2,522,414; the average price per square foot for a townhouse was $836, a rise of 7.2 percent. All were records for downtown Boston.

These records—especially the condo ones—were due largely to newer developments hitting the market and trading, per the report. Now most development in Boston is, of course, on hold due to different construction moratoriums and advisories to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

These and the inventory declines mean fewer options for buyers—many of whom are on the sidelines anyway, waiting to see what happens with the economy and with the post-pandemic real estate market. Those that are still taking the plunge, too, are navigating new realities such as virtual open houses and closings via veritable acrobatics in order to maintain social distancing and other coronavirus-fighting measures.