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Bought Home, Selling Castle

Housing: Ventura County real estate prices have soared in the last two months. With buyers lining up, bidding wars return.


Flush with a $95,000 profit from a Los Angeles County home, Mike Riach thought he'd have no trouble finding a house he could afford in Ventura County.

But the 33-year-old firefighter lost out on a full-price offer in Ventura. Then he found that just about anything in his price range was sold by the time he saw it.

Finally, after months of hunting, Riach and his wife, Suzie, got lucky in a lottery-type sale in Camarillo and bought the last model home in a new subdivision for $340,000. Eighty people had signed a waiting list for the opportunity.

"They called out our name and my wife jumped up screaming," he said. The victory will cost the Riaches 44% of their take-home income each month.

"It's $100,000 more than I wanted to spend; just way too much," Riach said. "But it's really good for today's market. It's amazing what's going on."

In the last two months, Ventura County's scorching housing market has gotten so hot that some veteran agents say it matches or surpasses the real estate run-ups of the late 1980s.

Bidding wars are back, agents say. Some owners sell their own homes without an agent in days. And even houses priced above the perceived market are regularly fetching more than owners are asking.

"It's almost as if somebody flipped a switch in late January, and everybody came out in droves," said Ventura agent Harold Powell. "In the last month we've had multiple offers on four or five properties. Three of them have sold over the asking price."

Those houses sold for $285,000 to $500,000, he said. A year or two ago, they would have cost $50,000 to $100,000 less.

Ventura County, a commuter haven for San Fernando Valley workers for decades, is now also seen as an affordable alternative for professionals who work in the pricey coastal enclaves of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties.

Broker Mike Glickman, the onetime golden boy of San Fernando Valley real estate, began his move into Ventura County a year ago to catch what he said is the strongest market he seen since entering the business in 1978.

"It's a gold rush out here," he said. "There's nothing to compare to the frenzy going on in Ventura County right now."

Glickman said he personally sells a house a day in this county, about one-third of his total in the region.

Consider the Spanish-style home Jill and Matthew Clark bought for $390,000 in the lower Ventura hills in June. Two weeks ago, they sold the same 1,600-square-foot bungalow on a postage-stamp lot for $460,000. That's a cool $70,000 bump in 10 months.

Eighteen people called the first day, and the house sold by nightfall.

"Even the Realtors were shocked at how quickly it went," Jill Clark said. "It's a very hot market in this moderate price range."

Fred Evans, the agent who listed the Clark home, said Santa Barbara's prices, especially, have sent young couples southward to Ventura and Oxnard looking for deals. An older Spanish home with a view can cost $800,000 to $900,000 in Santa Barbara, he said, but $500,000 in Ventura.

Estimates are that 20,000 Santa Barbara County workers commute from west Ventura County each day, he said.

"I've lived here 32 years, and I've never seen anything like this," Evans said. "They'll drive 45 minutes each way to save $300,000 on a house. Every time we sell a house, we'll raise the next price $10,000 or $15,000 for the same neighborhood, and it still sells. Sometimes in a day or two at full price."

Countywide home sales figures for February, the most recent available, were up 36% from the year before and far outpaced those for the same month in 1988 and 1989. The median price soared from $253,000 in February 2001 to $303,000 a year later.

"We've got sales numbers we wouldn't normally see until summer," said John Karevoll, analyst for DataQuick Information Systems of La Jolla.

DataQuick's figures are based on closed escrows and generally reflect deals reached in January. A west county Realtors' group, which counts escrows when they open, reported that March sales were up 41% over February and that the median price for the nearly 500 single-family homes on the market is about $500,000.

Agents say prices and competition for homes have only increased in recent weeks as buyers have tried to beat twin bugaboos--rising prices and mortgage interest rates hikes.

"It's a very unusual market," said Karen Campbell, president of the Ventura County Coastal Assn. of Realtors, which represents agents from six cities in the west county.

Two weeks ago in Ventura, for example, only about 80 houses and condos were for sale, far fewer than usual. About 100 more were on the market in Oxnard.

"There's nothing to sell," she said, "so prices are continually going up. There are five buyers for every house, so you're going to have bidding wars."

It's purely a seller's market, and that's not good, Campbell said, because it prices the young, the old and even middle-income couples out of the market.

Thousand Oaks agent Jim Keith said he saw the problem recently.

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