Jesus and Lupe Vasquez cringed at the red tags -- official notices practically screaming the word "uninhabitable" -- affixed to neighbors' front doors, just steps from their unscathed Eagle Rock home, which they put up for sale a couple of weeks earlier for $649,000.
"Will buyers want to live on this hillside now?" Jesus Vasquez wondered aloud right after a late-February squall sent mud streaming down the steep slope behind the homes of his neighbors, who were forced to evacuate. "I'm worried."
Vasquez's concern -- shared by many homeowners in hillside areas -- is understandable but may be brief, real estate experts say. The Southland storms, which had dumped almost 34 inches of rain as of Thursday and resulted in the red-tagging of nearly 90 homes in the city of Los Angeles, may disrupt sellers' plans for a short while, but home values in the affected neighborhoods should remain steady, based on realty rebounds following previous natural disasters.
Home prices, even for properties next to uninhabitable structures and in mudslide areas, are expected to ride out the storm because of the continuing strong demand for Southland homes, especially ones with views, said G.U. Krueger, an economist for the real estate investment advisory firm IHP Capital Partners in Irvine.
Nationwide studies of homes damaged by earthquakes, fires, floods, storms, tornadoes and hurricanes have found no ill effects on home values from these natural disasters, said John Karevoll, an analyst at La Jolla-based DataQuick Information Systems.
"Household income, job growth and migration patterns play 100 times more of a role in the ups and downs of home prices," Karevoll said. "After a slide, the impact on subsequent sales over time is virtually unnoticeable.
"There might be a temporary lull in real estate activity" in the affected areas after natural disasters, he added, "but it always kicks back into gear."
That has been especially true of properties such as the Vasquez house. The four-bedroom home with a guesthouse, situated at the bottom of a hill with homes perched above it, has weathered a couple of El Nino seasons and survived an upslope neighbor's 1984 pool leak, which sent a cascade of water into the Vasquezes' living room. Taking experts' advice at the time, the Vasquezes built a hillside retaining wall and installed an extensive outdoor drainage system, which easily handled the recent voluminous rainfall.
Such work -- sometimes covered by insurance -- can add value to homes remodeled or rebuilt to higher standards, thus producing a "Santa Claus effect," said Randall Bell, a Laguna Beach real estate appraiser who specializes in disasters.
"You can find buyers willing to pay full value even if neighbors had problems," Bell said. "They get the land tested by geologists and make a decision based on that."
The effect of the recent storms on home prices and neighborhood desirability could last from one day -- in areas with minimal mudslides and high buyer appeal -- to four years, the time it took buyers to return to La Conchita after the March 1995 slide, said Camarillo Re-Max Gold Coast agent John Heard. Nine homes were destroyed in the '95 slide; 12 more homes vanished in January's slide, which killed 10 people.
Since the last El Nino storms in 1997-98, which dumped 31.02 inches of rain and severely damaged some Malibu homes, buyers there have scrutinized geology and drainage systems more closely, said veteran agent Jack Pritchett of Pritchett-Rapf Realtors. His office and other Malibu agents routinely attach the "Malibu-Topanga Disclosure Addendum" to purchase contracts, a document that lists every possible area hazard, including fires, landslides and tsunamis. Serious buyers, however, are not dissuaded from canyon and hillside purchases, Pritchett said, even after slides and fires.
"The prices don't go down," Pritchett said. "Sales stall but only until the next sunny day."
In 1998, several half-million-dollar homes on Via Estoril in Laguna Niguel were destroyed and scores damaged in a landslide captured on live television. About two years later, after geological testing, bulldozing and rebuilding, many homes in that neighborhood had regained their full value, appraiser Bell said.
"In some cases, properties a street or two away from the slide sold immediately after for full value," Bell said. "There are great ocean views and there is a healthy demand for real estate in that market."
The biggest impediment to future building and sales in La Conchita and other areas where homes were completely destroyed will be obtaining homeowners' insurance and building permits, Camarillo agent Heard said. If cities and counties eventually allow rebuilding in high-risk areas, however, there will be no lack of interest from buyers.
Interest in La Conchita