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Heaven for Home Buyers

It's easy to be picky shopping for your dream house in the heartland. In a St. Louis suburb, $240,000 buys a very nice 3-bedroom.

June 10, 2004|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

BALLWIN, Mo. — This is what buying a house is like in the nation's vast affordable heartland:

You have the luxury of "but ..."

As in: This is a great house, but ... the yard is too steep. But there's only one sink in the master bath. But we'd prefer a bigger closet in the nursery. So, thank you, but we'll keep looking.

And why not?

This isn't Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., or Sarasota, Fla. There's no pressure to put in a bid the moment you pull up to the curb of any house you can even remotely afford.

Out here in the upper-middle-class suburbs of St. Louis, you can be as picky as you please. Because next week's listings are sure to bring up 30 more roomy three-bedroom, two-bath homes in a top school district -- homes with decks and fireplaces and hardwood floors, homes with oak cabinets in airy kitchens and carpeted rec rooms in the basement.

All priced less than $250,000.

Real estate agent Dawn Dierker was showing one the other day -- a spotless two-story in a tucked-away neighborhood along a wooded, winding road. Just six years old, the house boasted soaring ceilings, a bay window, ceramic tiles in the kitchen, even a goldfish pond by the patio, and 2,100 square feet of space. Asking price: $239,900. Her clients, Chakra and Lekshma Valluri, clearly liked it.

But lingering in the pale yellow family room, Chakra Valluri, a software engineer, shook his head. "The road behind the house might be too loud," he said, straining to hear the faint hum of traffic.

"It's a buyer's market," Dierker said, resigned.

The recent explosion in housing prices in California and parts of the East Coast has split the country into two distinct cultures when it comes to pursuing the American Dream.

In Los Angeles County, prices shoot up practically every other week -- they jumped more than 25% this winter alone, compared to the first quarter of 2003 -- and many homes sell in days. Caught up in the frenzy, buyers waive inspections, offer tens of thousands above the list price, even write groveling letters to the seller, vowing to take good care of the property.

Here in the heartland, as real estate agent Sharon Hutson put it, "everything kind of mellows." Buyers such as the Valluris, who now rent an apartment, spend months sorting through online listings, rejecting one home after another because they lack decks or basement playrooms, before picking out a few to visit. In four months of hunting, the Valluris have studied listings for at least 35 homes in their price range in their preferred school district. They have toured only three.

Yet they don't consider themselves picky, just prudent: "We go see only the ones we like best," said Chakra Valluri.

That laid-back approach is typical of much of the Midwest.

In Southern California, the most desirable communities are hemmed in by the ocean or the mountains, with little space to grow. In the nation's midsection, however, there's plenty of room to build suburbs on former farmland -- and because traffic tends to be light, even the newest developments are often just 30 to 45 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

The ample inventory helps keep housing prices in check. The median sale price for an existing house in Los Angeles County in April was $387,000. In Ventura County, it was $463,000; in Orange County, $523,000.

In the St. Louis metro area, the median stands at $135,000.

"We're generally a steady-as-she-goes market," said Bryan Kelsey, the chief executive of Relocation Realtors in St. Louis.

Certainly, local property values are rising. But at a modest 4% to 6% a year. Bidding wars do occasionally break out, and the best homes can sell quickly, especially in the older, more exclusive, brick-and-cobblestone neighborhoods near downtown.

But in the swings-and-sandbox subdivisions a bit farther from the city, that type of frenzy is rare enough to be thrilling; agents pass on the stories in a breathless hush, awed to report that a four-bedroom near Kiefer Creek drew an offer several thousand dollars over list price.

While homes in Los Angeles tend to sell in a week or two, the typical home here remains on the market 45 days. Homes selling for more than $200,000 tend to be available longer still, often sitting for three full months.

The buyers, not the sellers, have the upper hand -- which helps explain Carrie Lovell's spreadsheet.

A computer programmer with an 11-year-old son, Lovell decided this spring to buy a home after years of renting.

Her dream house, she knew, would have at least three bedrooms and be in good shape. No fixer-uppers. She wanted a level backyard, with lots of room for her son, Zach, to run around. The neighborhood school, of course, had to be excellent.

She wanted a laundry room on the main floor so she wouldn't have to lug clothes to the basement. A master bedroom big enough to fit her king bed, dresser and armoire. She was hoping for a spacious master bath.

For this, she was willing to spend as much as $200,000.

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