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Real Estate Booms in Humboldt County

October 28, 2002|Emily Gurnon | Special to The Times

EUREKA, Calif. — It's long been known for giant redwoods and marijuana cultivation. But in the last two years, Humboldt County appears to have been discovered as the home of "the most affordable coastal real estate in California," as one agent put it.

Prices for single-family homes in Humboldt, whose county seat of Eureka lies about 100 miles from the Oregon border, have shot up since 2000.

The median price for a single-family home in the third quarter of this year was $188,000, up from $138,500 just two years ago, according to the Humboldt Assn. of Realtors. In the last three months, prices have jumped $10,500, or 6%.

Those numbers look tiny to Southern Californians, Bay Area residents and other outsiders. That seems to be a large part of what's driving the explosion.

"In our office, about 50% of the buyers who come to us are from outside the area," said Sue Forbes, a real estate broker. "Two years ago, it would be maybe 20[%] or 25%."

Some come to retire, attracted by the affordability, natural beauty, small-town atmosphere and relatively cool temperatures. Some telecommute to jobs in bigger cities. Others, real estate agents said, decided after last Sept. 11 to get away from cities and skyscrapers that terrorists might target.

When they sell their pricey homes in San Francisco, Sacramento or Southern California, many pay cash for property here, sometimes buying a place sight unseen.

"All you need is a couple people to come up, somebody pays cash without an appraisal and guess what? That sets the price," said Debi August, a broker in the town of Fortuna who has sold houses here for 30 years. "It's a snowball effect. A willing buyer and a willing seller determine value."

Most of the people coming through her office are from elsewhere, primarily the Bay Area and Sacramento, and they arrive with a lot of money, August said.

"They come up here and say, 'You're kidding! I can pay this for that?' " she said.

With the stock market's collapse, real estate looks like a smart investment, and the low interest rates don't hurt.

San Bernardino resident Jeraldine Beres, 58, just paid $254,000 in cash for a house in the town of McKinleyville, which she plans to live in with her daughter, a freshman at Humboldt State University in nearby Arcata. She sold her three-bedroom home in Tustin for $350,000.

"I bought a beautiful little duplex. She's going to live on one side and me the other," Beres said. Her husband had wanted to retire here, and, with his sudden death this summer, "my daughter and I need each other," she said.

The five-bedroom, 1,850-square-foot home is in "a prime area -- I can walk to the store, post office, library, senior center," Beres said. "Everybody's telling me I'm going to be depressed" by the cool, often foggy weather. "I don't think so."

The proximity of Humboldt State, with its intellectual and cultural offerings, is a prime attraction for many transplants. And it's common for parents to buy homes here for their children to live in while attending college, said Charles McCann, an Arcata broker.

As outsiders snap up what they see as bargains, locals view the rising prices with alarm.

"This is unbelievable. It scares me to death," said August, the Fortuna broker. "I worry about our children. It used to be affordable and now there is not anything affordable. That's just absolutely crazy."

In recent years, the area's logging and fishing industries have fallen on hard times. For most residents, salaries are modest; the county's median household income is $31,226. "We are not seeing any increase in income. In fact, we are seeing people being laid off as the mills struggle to stay open," August said. "We are finding people with less income to spend."

Erika Young said she and her husband, Nathan, struggled for nearly a year to find a home for their family in Arcata -- the liberal college town that one real estate agent dubbed the "epicenter" of the price quake. There, buyers are hard-pressed to find a three-bedroom home for less than $200,000.

Time after time, the Youngs lost out on modest houses, whose prices shot up in bidding wars -- in one case from $140,000 to $180,000 for a 1,000-square-foot tract home, said Young, a Humboldt County native.

Meanwhile, their landlord raised their rent from $1,100 to $1,400 -- an increase they couldn't afford.

"The sensation was disbelief and desperation, because we really needed to find a home to buy," said Young, 35, a mother of three. The couple finally bought a two-bedroom, $119,000 house in Willow Creek, a mountain hamlet 40 miles east of Arcata, where her husband does computer programming from home.

Officials worry that housing prices will change the fundamental character of their towns.

"The city of Arcata doesn't really want to become an elitist community," said Jim Test, Arcata's mayor. "We don't want to become a Marin [County]."

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