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Spring Thaw : Real estate: The local housing market is showing signs of recovery. More realistic selling prices and reasonable interest rates have helped to spur sales.


AREA — Once again, it seems, Westsiders are practicing their one true religion--buying and selling real estate.

After two years of plummeting prices and dwindling sales, the local housing market is showing signs of life.

According to such authoritative sources as Westside real estate agents and patrons of sushi bars, people who have had to pay to do things on Sunday afternoons are once again enjoying the best free show in town: looking in other people's closets at open houses.

And an increasing number of Westsiders are reportedly putting their homes up for sale and actually selling them, instead of simply keeping them spotless for six months before reluctantly taking the sign down and letting the dog back in.

"Since Jan. 1, buyers are out there in droves," real estate agent Judi Opolinsky said recently, while showing condominiums in Santa Monica.

The numbers reinforce the buzz.

The Los Angeles Board of Realtors reports that sales rose over last year throughout its Westside region. Last month, sales of single-family homes rose 9% over February of last year, from 213 to 232. Surged was the word the board used, but even nonbelievers agree there's been a spurt.

"The market has changed drastically since the beginning of the year," said Gary Fleishman, who heads Fred Sands' Santa Monica office.

For the last two years, Fleishman said, his agents averaged a sale per day. "Right now, we're basically at two a day. We have brokers who have already made more this year than they made all of last year."

Tim Corliss, who owns Re-max Westside Properties in West Los Angeles, said his business is up almost 45% since the beginning of the year, with the condo market especially strong.

Although even brokers don't foresee the return of the days when owning a house on the Westside was a license to print money, they do see evidence of recovery. Multiple offers, for instance. Although nothing can bring back the hour of bidding wars for Westwood fixers, multiple offers are no longer the rarity they were last year, Fleishman said.

Properties are moving briskly enough that prospective buyers are beginning to caravan with their agents--visiting the special twice-a-week open houses held for brokers--in hopes of finding a choice property before competing buyers do. Caravaning is so entrenched a feature of the ritual of Southern California real estate that it has produced a tabloid, called Caravan Express, that not only tells brokers which houses will be open but also puts a little heart in front of the ones where a free lunch will be served.

A major reason for the recent boomlet is lower prices, brought about, agents say, by more realistic expectations on the part of sellers.

In February, 1991, the median price paid for a home in the Board of Realtors' Westside region--an area that excludes some lower-priced Westside neighborhoods--was $547,357. This February it was $531,786. For the same period, the median price of a tear-down in Beverly Hills dipped to $1 million from $1.4 million, and the average bungalow in Hollywood was $347,058, down from $397,106.

Although affordability obviously means something different in Iowa than in Playa del Rey, the more modest prices seem to have spurred sales. Brokers also think the market is being boosted by the recent increase in interest rates from their lowest levels since the 1970s. Prospective buyers fear that rates could return to double digits, especially after the November presidential election.

Recent first-time buyer Sheila Hickey, 37, said she began looking three years ago but was discouraged by the high prices and lack of choices in that seller's market.

"You felt you had to jump on things because everything was going so fast," she recalled. "You felt like if you let it go, you'd never get anything again."

Hickey, who runs a Santa Monica-based firm that makes and distributes vintage-style jewelry, said she felt much less pressure this time out. There were more houses to choose from, what real estate agents call inventory. In the current market, she said, "the buyer feels a little more empowered."

Hickey closed escrow on a two-story house on Venice's Grand Canal on Valentine's Day. The price--she wants only to say that it was "in the high fours"--made it hard for her to breathe some days, but she got a good deal on her mortgage. And she loves the house.

Less than three months into 1992, no one is saying Westside real estate is fully recovered, but funeral plans have been put on hold. Suddenly, properties that sat unsold for months are warm, if not hot.

Board of Realtors President Gregg Pawlik cited the example of a house listed eight months ago at $1.6 million.

No one nibbled, said Pawlik, who is with Jon Douglas and specializes in high-end homes in Pacific Palisades and Brentwood.

"Now the property is listed at $1.1 million, and there are two offers on it."

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