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Ventura County

Local Housing Market Still on Blistering Pace

Real estate: Analyst sees no end in sight to 'buying frenzy.' Brokers expect a leveling off. Prices for a typical home up $35,000 for quarter.

April 21, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County's frenzied housing market continued its climb in March, as sales and prices soared to record highs and analysts split on how long the boom can continue.

For the first quarter of 2002, sales were up nearly 23% compared with the year before, which was also a very good year. And prices were up $35,000 on a typical house for the quarter, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

"There's a lot of sticker shock out there, but there's also a buying frenzy," DataQuick analyst John Karevoll said. "And this could go on for quite a while, through the summer, if not the fall."

Local real estate agents, however, say they think the market is headed for a plateau, not a decline.

"There's a feeling out here by most of the Realtors that we need an evening out and that there will be one," said Peter Greer, president-elect of the Conejo Valley Assn. of Realtors.

"But the bubble isn't going to burst. There's just too much demand for housing."

Sales have risen sharply this year despite an increasing shortage of available houses.

The price of a typical home reached an all-time high of $312,000 last month, up $28,000 since January and up $34,000 from March 2001. That median price reflects the point at which half the homes cost more and half less.

Home sales and prices are surging upward, Karevoll said, because of short supply, low interest rates and buyers' fears that they'll be left behind if they don't purchase.

Despite high prices, homes are still relatively affordable when considering only a buyer's monthly mortgage payments.

"In raw dollars, the mortgage costs are still roughly what they were during the boom 13 years ago because of low interest rates," Karevoll said. "And that's not counting 13 years of inflation. So there's still a lot of elbow room for increases."

Last month alone, Ventura County owners sold 1,614 houses and condominiums, up from 1,457 in March 2001 and nearly three times more than in the same month a decade ago, when the county was entering an eight-year slowdown.

Historically, sales and prices accelerate in March after a winter slowdown, but this winter also set records. And the momentum only seems to be increasing, according to real estate experts.

While DataQuick counts sales when they close escrow, a west county Realtors' group that counts deals when they are first struck, reported that March sales were up 41% over February and a $500,000 median price for homes still on the market.

Jim Barroca, communications manager for the Ventura County Coastal Assn. of Realtors, pointed to two telltale signs of an accelerating market--homes selling in fewer days and an increase in sales despite a shortage of available houses.

Since April 1, the number of homes for sale by Realtors in Oxnard, Ventura, Camarillo, Santa Paula, Port Hueneme and Fillmore has dropped from 536 to 465, and the average number of days a house was on the market dropped from 56 to 45, Barroca said. The number of condos on the market dropped from 75 to 63.

"They're selling faster and we have even less inventory, so that's why the prices are higher," Barroca said. "The Realtors are telling us all the time there's just nothing out there for sale."

Ventura broker Karen Campbell, president of the west county association, said she's surprised by the strength of the market and questioned how long the rise will continue.

"I've had several conversations in the last week, and everybody is just amazed at the prices, and wondering how much longer it is going to go up," Campbell said.

"I don't know how the economy in our area is going to support these prices."

Houses are selling so fast, often with multiple bids above the asking price, that some agents are not listing new properties with the association's multiple listing service, she said.

"Now we're seeing these office exclusives," Campbell said. "There are 35 or 40 more homes on the market that you wouldn't even know about if you didn't know the listing agent."

The unprecedented run-up worries Campbell.

"Pretty soon we're going to be out of housing that people can afford, so where are the workers of our communities going to live?" she said.

Greer, a Thousand Oaks agent and association leader, said he thinks the market will balance itself out in coming months. For now, the average Conejo Valley house is on the market only 45 days, compared with 84 a year ago. And listings are down to about 550, far below the usual level.

"Real estate is cyclical," Greer said. "We are actually just now seeing the impact of many, many years when the market was down."

Yet, the scorching home sales market hits hard at the backbone of the community, Greer said.

"We're finding we don't have homes to meet the needs of the entry-level and workforce people," he said. "In other words, our firefighters, our policemen, our teachers. They start at under $40,000 a year, and they have to live somewhere else."

About one-third of county households can afford to buy a home today, compared with about one-fifth a decade ago.

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