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Happy Campers Get in Line to Buy New Homes : Real estate: Is it still a buyer's market? Some are keeping overnight vigils for a chance to purchase a home. Housing sales through mid-March were up 35% from the same quarter last year.


COSTA MESA — In a flashback to the 1980s, when people lined up overnight or even for days to bid on scarce new homes going up for sale in Orange County, potential buyers are again camping out.

Such gatherings of homeowner hopefuls during the first quarter were the first since 1990, according to the Meyers Group, a real estate consulting firm in Newport Beach. Among Southern California counties, Orange is the only one so far in which the phenomenon has reappeared, the consulting firm said.

"This shows there is getting to be some excitement among consumers, and they are wanting to get back into the market," said Steve Johnson, a partner with the consulting group. "We think they were propelled . . . by an increase in mortgage rates, and they want to lock up something now."

At Sunset Ridge, a 141-home development planned in San Clemente, the 11 home lots in Phase 1 sold out in two hours on Jan. 15 after some buyers waited six days in campers, said Rick Hernandez, sales agent for the project. The development, by Dallas-based builder Centex Homes, quickly sold out its first and second phases. Some people arrived several days in advance of sales for the third phase, Hernandez said.

"It's like the good old days. It's like 1984 all over again," Hernandez said. "Everyone is really surprised at first when they see people camping out because they still think it's a buyer's market. But one guy waited in his camper 12 days."

The project includes one- and two-story homes with four bedrooms. The 1,937-square-foot houses are priced as low as $235,990 and have an East Coast flavor.

"They've gotten away from the Spanish look," Hernandez said. The new homes are "more traditional looking, with brick."

The Meyers Group also found potential buyers camped out in March at the latest phase of six lots at the El Encanto project in Marbrisa, also in San Clemente. It, too, is being developed by Centex.

"There is definitely high interest in certain lots," said Don Mitchell, sales representative for Centex. "When we opened our doors on the day of the sale, we had five people who had waited all night. It caught us by surprise. I guess it signals that our homes are priced right."

The Mediterranean-style, four- and five-bedroom houses start as low as $276,990. They range in size from 2,519 square feet to 3,286 square feet.

"People are assuming that housing is as low as it's going to go in Orange County," Johnson said. "Orange County was starved for an affordable product for so long, and that's what people are going for now."

A luxury condominium project called Altezza in Newport Coast had a lottery on March 19 to sell its first phase of 18 units. More than 200 people showed up to bid for 18 homes, said Jeff Golden, sales manager for the project, which is being built by Taylor-Woodrow Homes California Ltd. of Newport Beach. The development is already sold out at prices that go above $400,000.

Orange County home sales through mid-March were up 35% from the same quarter last year. And inventory--the number of homes under construction and lots being readied for development--also increased slightly, according to The Meyers Group. At least 19 new projects opened during the latest quarter, and the majority of existing projects opened new phases, the consulting firm found.

"There is usually a seasonal uptick in supply during the first quarter," Johnson said. "It's the nature of the industry to pre-build in the first quarter."

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