Houses were sold as soon as they came on the market, listings under $200,000 became an endangered species, and building lots were almost as hard to find as a heath hen.

That was Martha’s Vineyard real estate 1998, according to a random sampling of Island professionals in the field, and real estate 1999 is likely to be the same, only more so.

And despite rave reviews for the business they did during the past twelvemonth — Sharon Purdy of Sandpiper Realty used the word “fabulous” to a factor of seven — there is some concern about the future. The inventory of listings has dried up dramatically, the national economy is unpredictable, and veterans of the business are all too familiar with cycles of prosperity.

The paucity of building lots is new. “One of the greatest shortages is land,” said Nancy Vogel of Harborside Realty. She noted that builders are primarily doing custom houses on land that is already owned. “Anyone who flies over the Island knows there’s enough land,” she said. “I’m looking for an affordable lot myself, and I’m in the business and I can’t find one.”

“We’re a very finite resource,” noted Muriel W. Laverty, whose real estate business bears her name. “The land bank’s coffers have been very full, so the land bank is now buying up much of the open space — fortunately. I think the land bank is the best thing that ever happened to this Island. Therefore the inventory is very small.”

Has the Island begun to reach the endgame of land ownership, as conservation groups have predicted? “I think we’ve reached it,” Mrs. Laverty said.

“Absolutely it’s a buildout process,” said Neal J. Stiller of Cronig’s Real Estate. “We’re getting close to where there isn’t any land left to buy, to build on or not. There aren’t any large tracts left, or people are holding onto them.”

Gerret C. Conover Jr. of Conover Real Estate specializes in high-end Edgartown properties, and he said that with waterfront properties and prime larger parcels, “there seems to be an assembling of adjacent land, buying it to give themselves privacy.” The proactive land bank and conservation groups seem to “make higher end properties incredibly scarce,” he said.

James Lengyel, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, might not agree that his organization is buying up every parcel in sight, but he does agree that revenues — two per cent of most real estate transactions — are decidedly up. “Revenues have been steady and the number of transactions has been steady,” he said. “This year will be up 26 or 27 per cent, and the previous two years were up 30 per cent. In absolute numbers, this will be the land bank’s highest grossing year ever.

“In the land bank revenue projections, we consider 1998 to be the apex. We assume in the next two years that revenues will be smaller. That’s just sensible financial planning rather than prognostication.”

The land bank will run its computer analysis of 1998 in the days ahead to see how its revenues broke down by price category. In 1996 and 1997, some 30 per cent of all its revenues came from sales of $1 million or more.

There’s still a far higher demand for those expensive properties than there is a supply, real estate professionals agree, but for Islanders and others without notably deep pockets, the paucity of low-end properties is alarming.

“The bottom of the market used to be $139,000,” Mrs. Laverty said. “Now it’s up to about $200,000, so we’re seeing a profound increase. We have a lot of prospective buyers we’ve been working with a long time who have never made a commitment, and they’re kicking themselves now.”

Mr. Stiller agreed. “Everything is getting tight,” he said, “especially in the under-$200,000 range if it’s in decent condition. If anything is priced between $150,000 and $200,000, it’s not on the market for more than two weeks.”

But inventory in general is the most pressing problem for the real estate business.

“We started the year with 700 listings in the inventory,” Mrs. Purdy said of the Island market. “We’re down to 300.”

Of the past year, she said: “In terms of volume, we are definitely back into the ’80s boom. In terms of dollars, we are definitely higher. In terms of inventory, we have none, or very little.”

Her worry about 1999 is more global, however. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about the stock market, there’s a lot of uncertainty nationwide and worldwide,” she said. “It will be very interesting to see what happens after the first of the year. Everyone knows the Island real estate market is closely tied to the stock market and it always has been.”

Concern about the future doesn’t dim her enthusiasm for the present. “The good thing is,” Mrs. Purdy said, “the major difference between the ’90s and the ’80s is that the majority of buyers have been strongly committed to the Vineyard; they have not been investors. So if there’s a drop in the market, hopefully it will be a more secure real estate market that results, because we won’t have people who rely on rental income. It’s a much healthier thing for the Island.”

A lot of new homeowners here “are committed to investing back into the Vineyard,” she said. “They don’t complain about the land bank fees and they’re generous contributors to the Island, and many more are year-round. Our Island makeup is changing, very definitely changing.”

“The year’s been wonderful,” Mrs. Vogel said. “It’s been consistently good, no highs or lows as usual, just consistently good. The only down side is the lack of inventory.” She speculated that perhaps prospective sellers are waiting for prices to rise even higher. “I’m not sure that’s correct,” she said, “but with the shortage of real estate they may be right. I definitely think the prices are going to hold up across the board, not just for high-end properties. In fact, probably more so for the low end — that’s where the real shortage is.”

Mr. Conover also had “a really terrific year. Values are sustaining and we are very encouraged for the year ahead.” He thinks that more than ever, buyers of very expensive properties will be razing or completely renovating existing homes, rethinking how to use their prime parcels, and designing a compound or laying out ideal homesites. “Values will stay strong,” he said.

“It’s been a great year,” Mr. Stiller agreed. “There aren’t too many people in real estate complaining this year.” He said that there is a “decent inventory” of homes “in the $300,000 to $600,000 range in the woods” — i.e., not on the water — but the rest of the inventory is sparse. “There’s nothing we can really do about it,” he said. “The market’s pretty much dictated by the national economy. I’ve been in this business for 17 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”