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It's the end of October, but the U.S. housing market is acting like it's June.

Spurred on by historically low mortgage rates, buyers are racing to snap up homes, defying seasonal norms even as covid-19 infections surge in some states. Average listing times are down, and prices in a handful of metropolitan areas are up more than 20% from last year.

"Normally, buyers get a seasonal break," said Danielle Hale, Realtor.com's chief economist. This year, "we're just not seeing that."

The boom is the latest twist in a year that's been anything but normal. After the pandemic severely curtailed home sales in March and April, deals came roaring back, especially in suburbs and more-affordable cities. With few properties on the market, demand is far outstripping supply and leading to bidding wars.

The typical U.S. home went under contract in 16 days in September, according to research from Zillow. That's faster than the pace in June 2018 and 2019, the month when listings moved quickest in those years. In some affordable Midwestern markets, such as Kansas City and Cincinnati, houses sold in five days or fewer on average last month.

Meanwhile, prices soared more than 20% in the Kansas City, Philadelphia and Memphis metro areas last month, according to data from Redfin Corp. Fairfield County, Conn. -- which includes tony Greenwich -- saw a 33% gain.

While homes that are less expensive are selling the quickest, they're moving briskly across all price points. With mortgage rates dropping to record lows nearly a dozen times this year, buyers are trading up into larger properties so they can more comfortably accommodate remote work and school. Younger renters are also making the move to home ownership.

Hannah Schigel, a 24-year-old nurse in Cincinnati, is one of them. In late September, she found a listing for a two-bedroom ranch house that she liked in the city's Oakley neighborhood. By the time she was able to tour it the following afternoon, there were already a few offers. She scrambled to put in her own that day, and it was accepted at $196,000.

Because of low mortgage rates, her costs will be about $1,070 a month, compared with the $1,008 she was paying to rent. The house was move-in ready, she said, with hardwood floors, new cabinets and a fenced-in backyard where her French bulldog can run around.

"I knew when I saw this house it was going to go quick," Schigel said. "I felt like I had to go for it."

Other buyers are looking for more room, now that they're working from home indefinitely.

Katie Watson, 25, is a project coordinator for a biopharmaceutical testing facility in a suburb of Kansas City. When her job went remote this year because of the virus, she had an extra incentive to buy. She closed last week on a three-bedroom home in Blue Springs, Mo., for $200,000.

As a first-time buyer in a market that hasn't historically been that competitive, Watson was surprised that she had to put in an offer in less than a day and bid $15,000 above the listing price.

"I just assumed if you offered the asking price, that's what it took to buy a house," she said. "But that's not what happened."

The rapid-fire bidding is taking place against the backdrop of extremely tight inventory. While listings pile up in expensive urban areas like Manhattan and San Francisco, the reverse is true for suburban areas outside big cities and in much of the rest of the nation.

Across the U.S., the number of available homes was down 38% from a year earlier in the week ended Oct. 17, according to Realtor.com. In Boise, Idaho, which had been booming even before the pandemic, inventory was down 71%.

Tracy Kasper, a longtime real estate agent in the area, said there has been a flood of demand from people relocating to Boise and telecommuting. Buyers are waiving contingencies that allow them to get out of a contract if a house is appraised for less than their offer price or if inspections uncover the need for repairs.

A market that's balanced between buyers and sellers would have about six months of supply, according to Kasper. "For the last six months or so, we've had two weeks," she said. "It's just been gangbusters."

Whether the boom continues through the colder months -- when buyers tend to get distracted by the holidays -- remains to be seen, said Chris Glynn, a senior economist at Zillow. However, he said, the inventory crunch is real.

"We're still at that peak market activity," Glynn said. The question is, "will it slow down into the fall and the winter, or has there been some fundamental change?"

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