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Even With $1-Million Homes, Buyers See Corona as a Bargain

Luxury properties in the maturing Inland Empire city are attracting people priced out of Orange County and other Southland regions.

August 28, 2004|Annette Haddad | Times Staff Writer

As far as home values are concerned, the heart of 909 is starting to look a little like 90210.

For the first time this year, existing tract houses in the Inland Empire city of Corona are being priced at more than $1 million, while a new development of 540 yet-to-be-built luxury houses in Corona's first private golf community has generated a list of prospective buyers 900 strong.

Like everywhere else in Southern California, housing prices in Corona have gone through the roof. The median price there has more than doubled in the last four years to $430,000.

Still, relatively speaking, Corona remains a bargain -- especially compared with what you can find just across the border in Orange County. There, comparable houses typically sell for three or four times as much.

Just ask Greg Corlin. The head of defense contractor Engineering Documentation Systems Inc. couldn't find a home in Orange County in his price range -- upwards of $1 million -- that also met his family's needs for space.

In Corona, he said, "you just get more for your money."

So, after moving his company from Yorba Linda to Corona this year, Corlin decided to move his wife and two kids there as well.

He was one of the first to sign up for the Retreat, a semi-custom tract development in the shadow of Cleveland National Forest off Interstate 15.

Five building companies, including KB Homes, Beazer Homes and Lennar Corp., are divvying up the lots, which range from 5,000 square feet to more than an acre and overlook a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.

The builders hope the homes will fetch $600,000 to more than $1 million when the final phase of the project is completed in 2005.

Developer Jim Previti, for one, is counting on it. By most measures, he figures, Corona has a shortage of so-called executive housing, and his Ontario-based Empire Cos. is looking to fill the gap.

Having invested $25 million in the Retreat, Empire is developing the lots and the golf course and plans to build about 100 homes.

Like Corlin, most of those hoping to move into the Retreat are people who have been priced out of the luxury-home market in Orange County.

Yet 40% are current Inland Empire residents eager to trade up -- a sign of the area's maturing economy.

"There's enough people here for exclusive, luxury housing," said Previti, who has built about 25,000 homes in the Inland Empire since the 1980s.

Indeed, after decades of serving as a center of citrus production and then as a bedroom community, Corona has evolved. It now boasts a large manufacturing base and an expanding professional sector that includes thousands of well-paid workers.

Corona's lofty housing prices suggest "that a different labor force is moving in," said John Husing, a local economist who works as a consultant to the building industry.

To be sure, a majority of Corona's 140,000 residents still make the daily, stop-and-go freeway commute to jobs in Los Angeles and Orange counties. But a concerted effort by leaders in Corona and the neighboring cities of Norco, Ontario, Riverside and Rancho Cucamonga has enticed a number of businesses to pick up and move across the Riverside County line. In turn, their employees have discovered that they can afford nice homes there.

"Businesses come here first because of the lower costs, then their employees follow," said Nancy Martin, Corona's economic development manager.

Million-dollar homes are not uncommon in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, particularly in the desert communities around Palm Springs and in Temecula.

This year, 209 homes in the Inland Empire have sold for $1 million or more, according to DataQuick Information Systems. But these sales have been for mansions or "ranchettes" that occupy giant parcels of land.

What's different of late is that tract homes -- houses in developments that aren't custom-built and that sit on lots of less than half a acre -- also are being valued at $1 million or more.

As of Friday, 22 homes in Corona appeared on the multiple-listing service at $1 million or more, said Doug Forsythe, an agent for Keller Williams Realty. Of those, four were tract homes in a development called Eagle Glen, each with five bedrooms and five bathrooms.

Steven Kim, a 33-year-old emergency-room physician, bought his 4,400-square-foot house in Eagle Glen for $472,000 when it was built four years ago. He liked it because it was close to work at the Inland Valley Medical Center.

Today, Kim's home is in escrow, and he is poised to become the first Corona homeowner to resell a tract house for more than $1 million -- $1.05 million, to be exact -- assuming the transaction closes as scheduled next month.

Acknowledging that he put his property up for sale to take advantage of the red-hot housing market, Kim is planning to turn around and buy into the Retreat as soon as homes go on sale this year.

"I'm very interested in moving," he said.

"I believe it will be the nicest place in Corona."

* (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Long climb

Median prices for new and resold homes in Riverside County and Corona. (In thousands) Corona 1998: $153 July 2004: $430

Riverside County 1998: $133 July 2004: $327

Source: DataQuick Information Systems

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