Six new homes were completed and available for sale at the end of June in all of Ventura County. Don't bother calling; the homes, all priced well above $300,000, have long since been sold.
Earlier that month, prospective buyers camped out in front of model homes in Camarillo and Thousand Oaks the night before sales opened. Hours later, the homes, which hadn't been built yet, were sold, and most of the remaining buyers were put on a waiting list. In nearby Moorpark, most of the 1,500 people waiting for a chance to purchase 37 new homes in another development were turned away.
That ritual has become common in Ventura County, where buying a new home is often a game of chance. Eager buyers search out new construction sites, put their names on waiting lists and participate in lotteries for a shot at the new home of their dreams.
Things are not likely to change in the near future, with development interests blaming local growth-control measures and slow-growth advocates blaming profit-minded builders. Despite criticism of the slow-growth movement, the number of building permits that have gone unused as well as the average number of permits issued under growth-control guidelines suggest that limits are not the sole factor.
Caught in the middle of the home-seekers' gridlock are the first-time buyers, as well as homeowners seeking larger houses to accommodate growing families.
"People are just desperate for housing," said Dawn Marie Wilson, a real estate sales agent for Barclay Hollander Corp., a development firm that in March sold all of its 92 Camarillo-area townhouses in a single weekend.
"We could have sold them in an hour, but it took two days to fill out the contracts," Wilson said of the townhouses, which ranged from $130,000 to $163,000. "At 7 a.m. there were more than 200 families waiting in line."
Cost Ranked 4th
This year, high demand and a short supply of used and new houses pushed Ventura County housing prices at the end of the second quarter to the fourth highest in the nation among major metropolitan areas, officials at the National Assn. of Realtors said. The county's median price for a single-family home at the end of June reached $193,394, putting Ventura County prices between those of San Francisco and the New York metropolitan area.
By the end of July, the county's median price for a single-family home had jumped to $205,494, a 27% appreciation over the previous July. The median price for new single-family homes is now about $280,000 countywide. Half the houses sell for more, and half sell for less than the median price.
Stable interest rates, which have fueled record home sales and pushed up prices in most Southern California areas, are also largely responsible for the frenzied buying and high prices in Ventura County, real estate analysts say.
But development and business groups in Ventura County contend that growth controls in eight of the county's 10 cities have disrupted the housing market and pushed prices up even higher. Cities with growth-control measures -- only Oxnard and Port Hueneme lack them -- limit the number of new building permits issued annually.
"I've been in this business for 30 years and I've never seen a new home inventory of six units in what is basically a major metropolitan market, one with a population of almost 650,000 people," said Don Edwards, president of the Marlborough Development Corp. and the county's Building Industry Assn.
Besides the six completed houses, 146 more new homes were available for sale in Ventura County at the end of June, but none of those had been built yet, local real estate statistics show. In a normal housing market, experts say, there should be about a 10-month supply of homes. But the 152 new homes offered for sale at the end of the second quarter represents only a little more than a week's supply of housing, they said.
The prospect for buyers seeking used homes is somewhat brighter. For example, in the eastern part of the county, local real estate boards estimate that there were a little more than 1,000 new and used homes for sale at the end of July. That area, which includes Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Moorpark, has a total population of about 225,000.
The reason for the housing shortage is clear, Edwards said. "It's because of growth limitations and the county's policy severely limiting growth in unincorporated areas. Prices are up because there is a shortage of land on which housing can be built."
As newcomers to the area first notice, there is hardly a shortage of undeveloped land in Ventura County. Large expanses of open, rolling hills and thousand of acres of farmland separate the cities in most of the county. But the fight to keep those open areas free from development has been a long one, residents and elected officials say.
Traffic, Air Pollution
And despite the idyllic atmosphere of many of the semi-rural communities that make up Ventura County, it has its share of problems associated with growth.