One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.

Realtor Barbara Mastronardo sums it up this way: "Morton has a multiple personality."

One is the Delaware County municipality, the focus of today's real estate market discussion.

The other is Morton the zip code, 19070. As Mastronardo, of Weichert Realtors' Media office, explains, it can muddle the issue for those looking for a house in the borough.

"The zip code covers Morton, Rutledge, and parts of Springfield and Ridley, which means that it falls into two school districts, Ridley and Springfield," she says.

Morton Borough lies in the well-regarded Springfield School District.

Zip code Morton has 27 active listings and a median price of $189,000 to $190,000, Mastronardo says, with an absorption rate of three months. That means that if nothing else came on the market, it would take three months to sell all those houses.

Morton the borough has 12 active listings, with prices in the last three months averaging $205,000 to $210,000, says Nicole Ritchie, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors' Media office.

"The lowest price a house has sold for is $30,000, but it was really in bad shape," Ritchie says.

"Right now, sale prices are averaging 87 percent of the original list price and 92 percent of the last listing price," she says, so the more realistic sellers are about value, the better they will do.

A recent study by Quicken Loans found appraisers' opinions of home values are 1.6 percent lower than the estimates of Philadelphia metropolitan-area residents.

With the median home price in the region about $231,000, that gap translates to a difference of about $4,000, says Quicken spokesman Jordan Fylonenko.

"This could cause bumps in the mortgage process if appraisals come in lower than the value estimated on the mortgage application," Fylonenko says.

A year ago, appraisers' opinions were 3.4 percent less than those of the homeowners' or buyers', Quicken says, so perceptions are better.

Still, Ritchie says, "Sellers always try to get the most [for] their houses as they can."

As many real estate agents have complained lately, though the market is much improved from the depths of the housing downturn, it is not as fully recovered as they had hoped.

Mastronardo and Ritchie readily acknowledge that their part of the market still has plenty of bank-owned properties and short sales, and that until those disappear, sale prices will still struggle.

Ritchie, who sells real estate throughout Delaware and Chester Counties, says things are changing so much that one day it's a buyer's market and the next day a seller's.

Overall, the Morton market - the borough and the zip code - is ideal for first-time buyers looking for that reasonably priced starter home, both agents say.

"Younger buyers can't afford major renovations so put more money into the mortgage instead," Ritchie says.

For such buyers, the FHA mortgage is still the main choice because it requires a lower down payment than conventional loans, she says.

"The No. 1 obstacle to home ownership is the amount of money needed," says Jerome Scarpello, president of Leo Mortgage in Ambler. "Research shows that saving money for the down payment and closing costs is the primary barrier to buying a home."

Yet recent increases in FHA mortgage insurance have boosted the up-front costs of those loans, sometimes canceling the advantage over other products.

Ritchie and Scarpello applauded a decision this month by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to offer 3 percent down-payment loans to qualified first-time buyers and some others.

"I think lenders are cautiously expanding the availability to credit," Scarpello says. "They have learned lessons from the past, and the buyer must certainly qualify from an income and credit standpoint, but by lowering the down payment, otherwise eligible buyers can now enter the market."

In Morton Borough, the housing stock is largely twins and singles, mostly brick three-story Colonials with converted attics, Mastronardo says. There are also some rowhouses.

The lots are small, 50 feet by 100 feet, so the houses are taller, she says. "If you come from a South Philadelphia rowhouse, even that size is like the back 40."

Most industry moved out of Morton in the 1960s, she says, so there are no great swaths of buildable land as there is in a place like Conshohocken - just a few infill properties.

"The development costs would be so high there wouldn't be much of a profit margin," Mastronardo says.

Besides offering housing at affordable prices, a major advantage Morton has is its station on the SEPTA Media/Elwyn Regional Rail line.

"The train option is a great one because people who work in Philadelphia but cannot afford to live there can get there easily," Ritchie says.

Mastronardo emphasizes how the train service makes Morton convenient to the rest of the area.

"It is fabulous," she says. "If you miss the train at your stop, you can drive to the next one up the line and catch it into Center City."

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