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County's Home Sales Down 27%

But, according to a new report, the overall local economy -- powered by low unemployment and higher incomes for workers -- is still strong.

September 08, 2006|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Despite plummeting home sales and rising apartment rents, Ventura County's economy remains healthy due mostly to low unemployment and growing incomes for workers.

Sales of existing homes for the first six months of 2006 were down 27% over the same period last year, according to a new economic report. And overall price appreciation remains flat, as the market continues to cool.

But the county's economic woes are largely limited to a slowdown in home sales brought on by rising mortgage rates, officials said.

Retail sales are up, commercial vacancy rates are at or near historic lows, job growth continues at a modest but steady pace and home values remain strong -- with the median price of new and existing homes hovering at $650,000.

"To date, we are observing a soft, albeit bumpy, landing for the residential real estate market," said Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast.

"We're not seeing general weakness in the economy," he added.

During the last 12 months, nearly 5,000 new nonfarm jobs were created in the county's education, healthcare, manufacturing, construction, leisure and hospitality sectors, said Schniepp, who presented his annual county report at an economic conference Thursday in Westlake.

The coastal county, with its reputation for safe communities and good schools, posted a 4.7% unemployment rate, the lowest on record for the month of July.

Ventura County also has the third-highest average salary per worker in Southern California -- $46,323 -- behind Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to Schniepp's report. The finance and insurance sector, boosted by record home sales in recent years, reported the highest salaries, at $82,981.

If the housing market remains weak, real estate, mortgage firms and construction companies could see their workforces scaled back, Schniepp said. But so far, that hasn't happened.

"All the people who work for title companies, mortgage brokers, new home builders ... we're not seeing the attrition or unemployment lines," he said. "Even with the declines, we haven't seen any iota of evidence that there is" substantial job reduction.

Despite the drop in home sales, there is also no indication of a decline in year-over-year increases in home prices. Since 2000, nearly all Ventura County communities have seen median home prices more than double.

The most expensive areas remain in the east county. In July, homes in central Thousand Oaks sold for a median price -- the point where half of the homes cost more and half cost less -- of $699,000, while in the city's Westlake neighborhood, homes topped $1.1 million. Even cities where residences have been relatively affordable have experienced substantial price hikes, with median prices in Fillmore and Santa Paula exceeding $520,000 and central Oxnard posting a median price in July of $615,000.

Renters face similar sticker shock as vacancies are in short supply and lease rates are rising. Average rents countywide increased 7.2% for the 12 months ended July 31 to $1,394. And that may be considered a bargain to renters in Simi Valley, Moorpark and Thousand Oaks, where July rents were $1,495, $1,528 and $1,622, respectively.

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greg.griggs@latimes.com

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