Southern California's real estate industry, decimated by the mortgage meltdown and housing bust, is stirring to life again -- even making hiring plans -- as home prices bounce back.
Data released Tuesday showed the Southland housing market gaining strength in the traditionally slow month of November. The median price paid for a Southern California home increased 1.8% in November from October, to $285,000, according to MDA DataQuick, a San Diego real estate research firm. It's the seventh consecutive month in which prices have improved or held steady.
Sales of new homes in Southern California also rose unexpectedly last month, and the percentage of foreclosures making up the total resale market continued to drop.
But the market hasn't returned to full health, and a glut of foreclosures remains a concern because a flood of cheap homes could slow the recovery next year. A separate report Tuesday showed that the number of California properties repossessed by banks in November continued to increase when measured on a daily basis.
Still, rising home prices have translated into some jobs for real estate professionals this year, and more will follow in 2010 if the economy continues to rebound, those in the industry said.
For instance, hiring of temporary workers at real estate firms in the region has picked up in the last six weeks, said JoAnne Williams, chief executive of JWilliams Staffing in Irvine.
"Things are starting to move in a positive direction, very slowly, very cautiously, but moving," Williams said. "They are gearing up. There is just a sense that the demand is there."
The official numbers don't reflect a hiring increase yet. In Los Angeles County, the number of jobs in the real estate sector -- which includes agents, property managers and appraisers in the commercial and residential property markets -- fell by 400 in the 12 months ended in October, according to government statistics, with 53,300 people employed in those professions.
Maria Trangelo-Molina, an escrow agent with Fidelity National Title in Van Nuys, said she had to lay off more than half her staff this year but was hoping to start hiring next year.
"More people will be buying homes next year, which means we can generate more jobs and we can start hiring again," she said. "The recruiting is very active."
Betty Graham, president of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage of Greater Los Angeles, said she was optimistic about the coming months but would be cautious about any growth.
"We don't have to close any more offices, and we are operating very efficiently," she said. "But will we suddenly start throwing money around? Absolutely not."
Workers in the residential construction industry, however, continue to suffer. Los Angeles County builders employed 18,700 in October, a drop from 21,400 in October 2008.
Some good news for residential developers came Tuesday. Sales of newly built homes in Southern California jumped unexpectedly in November, according to DataQuick, with 2,039 sold, the highest for any month so far this year.
The Irvine Co., responding to what it called pent-up demand, recently announced it would unveil 25 floor plans next year in some of its Irvine housing developments.
But Emile Haddad, principal of Five Point Communities, a development spinoff of Miami-based home builder Lennar Corp., said a full construction recovery is not likely soon. Some "primary" markets close to job centers in Los Angeles and Orange counties probably would recover first, he added, with places such as the Inland Empire lagging behind.
"We are coming to the bottom in some of these primary markets," he said. But "I would be surprised if we see a significant increase in new construction before 2011 and 2012."
November's uptick was the first time since September 2007 that the median -- the point at which half the homes sold for more and half for less -- didn't post a year-over-year decline. It was still 43.6% lower than the $505,000 peak in early and mid-2007, DataQuick said.
The total number of homes sold in November rose 14.7% from the same month last year, though it fell from the previous month, which is typical as the slower fall and winter seasons begin. Sales decreased 13.3% from October to 19,181 last month in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties, DataQuick said.
The recent improvement in home prices has been largely driven by first-time home buyers and investors snapping up deeply discounted foreclosed homes and other properties in distress. The number of foreclosure sales as a percentage of the entire resale market continued to drop in November, DataQuick said. Properties sold in November that had been repossessed by a bank in the previous 12 months constituted 39.1% of all resales in Southern California, down from 40.6% in October. Foreclosure sales peaked in February at 56.7% of the market.