Town Talk: Homes sales up in February; Fairway Mortgage sets up shop in Lawrence; weekly property sales; parks and rec to discuss Deerfield Park’s future

News and notes from around town:

• Maybe during the month of February everybody was buying a new house for their Valentine. (I didn’t. My wife would rather have enough chocolate to fill a house.) Or maybe the latest home sale numbers are finally beginning to indicate that Lawrence’s housing market is improving.

Whatever the case, February home sale numbers are out and sales are up. For the month, Realtors made 60 sales, up 9.1 percent from February 2011 totals. It is still early, and 9 percent equates to only five additional sales, but it is still good news for the local real estate industry. The increase ends a streak of five straight months where sales totals were down compared to the same month a year earlier.

The momentum, however, continues to bypass the new construction market. Only two newly-constructed homes were sold in February, which is actually down from three in February 2011. But maybe builders know something we don’t. As we previously reported, single family building permits have been up in both January and February of this year.

The number that probably has builders deciding to pick up their hammers again is the inventory of new homes on the market. In February, there were 49 newly constructed homes on the market. That was down 30 percent from the 70 homes that were on the market in February 2011. Back in February 2010, there were 108 newly-built homes on the market.

Other numbers from the February report include:

— Year-to-date home sale totals are down 9.8 percent from the same period a year ago. If you remember, January was a rough month, and February’s uptick wasn’t enough to completely erase that sour start. For the year, Realtors have made 101 sales, down from 112 a year earlier.

— The average number of days a house is remaining on the market is shrinking. Through February, the average was 103 days, down from 123 a year earlier. The median number of days on market is 72, down from 86 a year earlier.

— Selling prices in 2012 are way down compared to a year earlier, but take that with a grain of salt. The sample size is so small that the prices are more indicative of what type of houses have sold thus far rather than a drop in actual real estate prices. But anyway, the median sale is $145,000, down from $158,950 a year earlier.

If you are interested in the Lawrence economy, then real estate sales and building permit totals will be two of the more important set of statistics to watch in 2012. Other pieces of the Lawrence economy — like retail sales — have shown some solid signs of rebounding. However, the housing industry has continued to be in a slump, but the real estate agents I’ve talked to swear they feel activity is starting to pick up.

• Maybe you have noticed there is a new player in the Lawrence mortgage market. Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp. has opened a branch at 4104 W. Sixth St. The company — which has headquarters in both Wisconsin and Dallas — has locations across the country but has a heavy concentration in the eastern half of the United States. The Lawrence office was the company’s first entry into Kansas, although its Web site now lists locations in Wichita and Topeka, too.

In Lawrence, Fairway basically took over the operations of the former Met Life Mortgage office. Longtime Lawrence mortgage brokers Diane Fry and Jack Gillespie both stayed on with the Fairway operation.

Fry told me she thought the real estate market in Lawrence was poised for a rebound. In fact, she did a little digging for me and said the number of February mortgage purchase contracts — in other words, not refinancing contracts — her office is working is at their highest level since February 2005.

“For this time of year, we are busier than we have been in years,” Fry said. “We have had some contracts where there have been three offers on the same property, and we haven’t seen that type of interest for a long time.”

• Might as well go for the real estate trifecta today. Click here to see the list of real estate sales recorded in Douglas County for the week ending March 19. There weren’t really any commercial sales of note, but following the theme of a rebound in residential real estate, it is noteworthy that there was activity regarding building lots during the period. Devco Inc., which is led by Lawrence real estate executive Doug Stephens purchased 19 building lots on Waverly Drive and Chamney Court, which is just east of DeVictor Park in West Lawrence. Whether it means much, though, I don’t know. Devco purchased the lots from Remco L.C., which is a company that also is led by Stephens. So, stay tuned to see whether activity is coming to that area.

• If Deerfield Park near Lawrence Avenue and Princeton Boulevard is one of your favorites, mark your calendar for 6:30 p.m. on April 3 at Deerfield Elementary, 101 Lawrence Avenue. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department will host a public meeting to get feedback on a new master plan for the 10-acre park. The city has created two concept plans for the park, and you can see them here and here.

I’m just going off a map here, but it looks like the main difference is that one concept would replace a tennis court area with new restrooms and a pavilion area. Both plans would include room for a skate park. The park previously had a small skate park and basketball/tennis court. The skate park and court, however, was recently removed because the concrete had started to crumble.

Both plans also would include a walking trail around the large grassy area of the park, which also would include a multi-purpose sports field in the center of the grassy area.

The city has already budgeted money to make some improvements at the park, and work could begin later this year.