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Ventura County Homes Rebound, but Slowly : Real estate: Amid surrounding weakness, the area's quality of life and economic health are nudging the market in the right direction.

August 01, 1995|DANICA KIRKA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lorena Diaz can't help but feel smug these days.

She and her husband, Mitchell, are purchasing a Spanish-style, four-bedroom home near the ocean in Oxnard for $183,000. The house, which had been put up for sale in a foreclosure, is one of a handful of apparently bargain-priced Ventura County residences that have wooed buyers to the area.

Diaz says buying the home stretched her family's budget limits, but she's hoping it will prove a sage investment over time. "We were able to get the house we've always dreamed of," she said.

After five tough years for Ventura County homeowners, there's some evidence that the county's residential housing market has made the strongest recovery in Southern California.

Although the price per square foot of a single-family house in Ventura County has declined by 29% since 1990--second only to the quake-hammered San Fernando Valley--the county's housing prices have stabilized and even began to edge upward in the second quarter of 1995, according to TRW Redi Property Data.

The average sale price of a Ventura County single-family house was $231,677 in the second quarter of 1995, up slightly from $230,234 during the same period last year, TRW Redi says.

Although this was only a modest increase, home sale prices dropped in every other Southern California county in the second quarter. Moreover, while foreclosure rates rose in many parts of Southern California during the first five months of the year, Ventura County saw a sharp, 14% decline, TRW Redi says. In part that is due to Ventura County's lower unemployment, higher incomes and lesser damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

"It never got quite as bad [in Ventura County] as it did in Los Angeles," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. "When [the economy] went in Los Angeles, it went with a bang."

Ventura County's housing market has also benefited from good demographics, trade, tourism and a little luck. But realtors say the market in Ventura may have a built-in edge.

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Buyers are salivating over clean air and open space, said Mary Hall of the Conejo Valley Assn. of Realtors. They'll add time to their commute to live with lower crime and a sense of community.

"People are looking to get out of the L.A. area if they can," Hall said.

What families think about the most is the perception that Ventura County's public schools are better than those of Los Angeles, said realtor Denise Arledge of Century 21 Adobe in Agoura Hills.

"They're dying to get out [to Ventura], because they want the schools," she said.

Buyers will pay more for the privilege. Average second-quarter housing sale prices in Ventura County are second only to Orange County in Southern California, economists say.

It helps that homeowners in Ventura County tend to make more money than those in Los Angeles. The median family income in Ventura County was $54,722 in 1993, while in Los Angeles County the median family income was $43,227, according to the California Assn. of Realtors.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to win the lottery, either. Consider the fact that several Ventura residents were among those who recently split a $29-million jackpot.

Take winner Marisa DeFalco and her husband, Vincent. Marisa works in a deli and Vincent is a pool service manager. Until two weeks ago, the DeFalcos were "living paycheck to paycheck." In December, they scraped together the financing to buy a $180,000 home in Thousand Oaks.

Now that they've moved to Ventura County after having grown up in the San Fernando Valley, Marisa DeFalco practically gushes about the change.

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"We love our neighbors," she said. "People stop and wave."

The newlyweds needed space for 14 pets and wanted a bit of distance from neighbors who might not appreciate the shrieking of macaws.

But they were also looking for a peace of mind that is harder to define. Now that the lottery has given them the money to move wherever they would like, they plan to stay in Ventura County.

"I wanted to go to the grocery store and not get pushed around," Marisa said. "People [in Thousand Oaks] are so friendly. They don't fight over parking spaces."

More than any single factor, economists say the brighter employment picture in Ventura County has helped homeowners weather tough economic times. While cutbacks in aerospace and other major industries made the unemployment rate in Los Angeles County soar, the bloodletting was milder in Ventura County.

At its high point in 1992, Ventura County's unemployment rate was 8.8%, compared to 9.6% in Los Angeles County.

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The overall Ventura County economy continues to improve. Port Hueneme now handles more tonnage than the port in San Diego. Tourism is another economic pillar. A third economic mainstay, the Point Mugu naval base, was recently removed from the federal base closure list.

Despite the relatively improving picture, though, even Ventura has had its share of homeowners who had to walk away after finding themselves with homes whose value had declined.

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