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Spring Break : Home Sale Slump Has Bottomed Out, Southland Realtors, Builders Say


When veteran realtor Helen Rowe put a handsome but modest two-bedroom home in West Los Angeles up for sale last month, she figured that the home would sell relatively fast.

Sure, Rowe knew that the real estate market has been in the doldrums: Resales in the Los Angeles area are down 41% from a year ago.

But this home was priced competitively and, in realtorspeak, was in "move-in condition"--immaculate, well-kept and in no need of repairs.

What happened next surprised even Rowe, who has been selling real estate for almost 30 years. The first day, she didn't get a single offer on the property.

Instead, she got six--one of them for the seller's full asking price of $495,000.

"It reminded me of 1987 or '88, when things were so crazy," Rowe said. "I thought the property would sell fast, but I had no idea it would sell this fast."

Across the Southland, there's a growing sentiment among realtors, builders, lenders and other experts that the dormant housing market has snapped out of its 18-month slumber.

They say a combination of factors--a short and successful Gulf War, renewed consumer confidence, lower mortgage rates and bargain-basement home prices--has had buyers coming out in droves since mid-January.

And while few believe that the housing market will soon return to the heady days of '87 and '88, when prices in many areas jumped 20% a year and homes often sold as soon as they were listed, many experts say that the market has bottomed out and is on its way back up.

"I think the train is finally leaving the station," summed up Leslie Appleton-Young, an economist for the California Assn. of Realtors.

Looking at the statistics provided by the realty trade group, it's hard to make the case that the resale market has finally turned around. Sales are down from Santa Barbara to San Diego, and prices are little changed from a year ago.

But the realty group's figures--which the media uses widely when reporting about the health of the housing market--can be misleading.

That's because they only track transactions that have already been finalized-- they don't reflect deals that have recently been struck but have yet to close escrow.

"All of our members are telling us that business has picked up over the last month or so, and that they're selling more homes," Appleton-Young said. "But those sales won't show up in our statistics for a couple of more months, until all those escrows close and all those keys change hands."

Many realtors think that a lot of keys will soon be changing hands, especially now that the prime spring home-buying season is here.

"I just gave a speech to 200 of our agents, and I asked them, 'How many of you think that the market has bottomed out?' " said Rick Merrill, president of Prudential California Realty.

"Every single one of them raised their hand."

Those agents have good reason for being optimistic: Sales at Prudential's 70 Southland offices in February alone were 50% above January levels. And on the pricey Westside, first-quarter sales are running 70% above the rate posted in the fourth quarter of last year.

"The market just seems to be getting stronger and stronger," Merrill said.

Jon Douglas Co., one of the largest real estate brokerages in the San Fernando Valley and West Side markets, also reports a big upturn in sales.

"We went nine months without having a single $100-million week, but now we've had three in a row," said Jon Douglas, the company's founder.

"I think a lot of the slowness we saw up until January was caused by a 'buyers' rebellion' against the big price increases we saw in '87 and '88," he said. "Now rates are down, the economy is looking better and prices have moderated. The rebellion, I'm happy to say, is over."

Sales are also up at Century 21, whose 500 offices south of Bakersfield make it the Southland's biggest brokerage outfit.

The three regional branches that comprise the bulk of the realty giant's Southern California operations saw nearly 8,500 homes go into escrow last month, up more than 25% from January.

Some C-21 offices are faring even better than others. At Century 21 A Marketplace in Long Beach, broker Phil Jones expects his staffers to sell at least 80 homes this month--twice the amount they sold in February.

"We've got a big bell hanging on the wall that we ring every time one of our agents gets a listing or makes a sale," Jones said. "Lately, it sounds more like we're working in a fire station, not a real estate office."

The sales pace in the San Fernando Valley has also quickened.

Realtors at James R. Gary East Ltd., a big brokerage firm headquartered in Studio City, sold nearly twice as many homes in February as they did a year ago.

"All those people who were sitting on the fence are jumping down and starting to buy," said Temmy Walker, the company's president.

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