MAMMOTH LAKES — Ski patrolman Mike Benier glanced with satisfaction at the snow-covered landscape around him and thought: "What a difference a year makes."
He examined a calibrated pole in the middle of a fenced-off study ski plot and checked the snow depth, a daily chore assigned to him by Mammoth/June Ski Resort.
The gauge showed 41 inches, a figure Benier happily noted on his pad. It was 8 a.m. on Christmas Day, 1987.
Bernier couldn't help recalling the previous Christmas, when a mere 18 inches had shown on the gauge, not enough to open the mountain for skiing.
For a town dependent on skiers, the drought of 1986-87 was bad news, one more blow for a resort that has suffered over recent years from earthquake and volcanic eruption scares, water shortages, forest fires, overbuilding, bankruptcies and foreclosures.
But the snows have returned and so have the skiers. On Jan. 23 the mountain sold 17,700 ski-lift tickets.
It was the biggest non-holiday weekend day that Mammoth has ever recorded, according to Pam Murphy, spokeswoman for the ski area.
That sort of volume has been reflected in town stores, where business is booming, and in real estate offices, where agents say buyers are once again appearing in gratifying numbers.
Ninety residential units were started in 1987, 67 of which were completed during the year, according to William T. Taylor, assistant town planner. The bulk of the condominiums built were at Snowcreek, a Dempsey Construction Co. project, where the new Sherwin Bowl ski area is proposed (details in next Sunday's real estate section).
Most of the building activity in town for the past two years has been in single-family residences, Taylor said.
Robert Nott, president of the Mammoth Lakes Board of Realtors, is optimistic. "I expect sales volume to increase 50% over 1987--and 1987 was a good year," said Nott, who is owner/broker of Main Street Real Estate Co.
"We've seen a stabilization of property values over the past two years, particularly in the last 18 months, and I anticipate an 8% appreciation rate by the end of this summer." He noted that Mammoth Lakes housing experienced a 44% drop in appreciation between 1982 and 1985.
A few bargains are available, especially in the foreclosure area, according to Tom Vineyard, broker at Century 21 Mammoth Realty and a director on the Board of Realtors. "Since the stock market crash, I've seen an inclination to invest in real property instead of the market."
Residential sales are up 20% from last year, he said, and buyers are more affluent.
Just about every real estate office in town had an extremely strong year in 1987, according to David Buckman, vice president of Mammoth Properties. "The seller is back in the driver's seat and the market is stabilizing," he said.
"But the inventory is down to 394 condominiums, and probably 50% of them are older units, not acceptable to the affluent buyer."
Buckman pointed out a major obstacle to new residential construction--lack of available financing. "Southern California real estate is doing well. Why should lenders stick their necks out for resort property?"
Chuck Tomajko, Mammoth Real Estate Co. broker, sees a dramatic change next year. "It looks like all of the foreclosure properties will have been sold by that time.
"We are seeing a repeat of the cycle brought on by the drought of 1976-77. In the drought period we were using up the inventory that was overbuilt from 1972."
'Nothing Was Available'
It took five years (from 1973 to 1977) to sell off the inventory, he said. Meanwhile, nothing was built during the drought moratorium.
"In 1978, we had a great winter," Tomajko said. "All of a sudden, nothing was available, and the auctions started. Today we have the same thing happening. The inventory is dwindling and not much construction is planned."
While the price of homes has depreciated or stood still, the cost of vacant residential lots has soared, according to Tomajko. "In 1984-85 you could get a decent lot for $25,000 to $30,000. The same lot today costs $50,000 to $60,000."
Another who has noted a marked improvement in business is James Magid, owner of Ski-Time Real Estate. His firm has sold more lots than anything else, but noted there is not much land left for development.
Bay Area Visitors
A former assistant city attorney in Los Angeles, Magid bought the Ski-Time Reservation Bureau, then added a real estate office when he found that many renters were interested in buying homes. He continues to practice law at Mammoth.
Mammoth is thought of as being supported primarily by Southern Californians, but Magid has observed a new development. "People from the Bay Area are buying at Mammoth," he said, "apparently disillusioned by the crowds at Lake Tahoe."
NEXT: What lies ahead for Mammoth.