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County Homes Sales At A Glance

$656,900 median price, an all-time record

456 home sales, the most for November in 13 years

520 homes now on the market, the smallest number in the past year

Sonoma County’s fire-ravaged housing market last month posted the most sales for November in 13 years, even as the median price rose slightly to a new record high.

Amid a decreased supply of houses, buyers last month purchased 456 single-family homes, according to The Press Democrat’s monthly housing report, compiled by Pacific Union International senior vice president Rick Laws. The last time more homes sold during November was in 2004, in the midsts of a national housing bubble, when 509 single-family houses changed hands.

Even as home sales increased last month, so did the county’s median price, climbing 1 percent from October to a record $656,900. November’s median increased 14 percent from a year earlier.

“People were in a rush to find and secure shelter,” said Laws.

The bump in November sales may have been partly because of a slowdown in October, when wildfires in the county claimed 24 lives and destroyed more than 5,100 homes. In the weeks after the infernos, a number of homes were pulled off the market, with some destroyed and others turned into lucrative rentals for fire victims. In the chaos, buyers and sellers also found it took longer to complete transactions on properties already in escrow.

Even so, last month’s boost in activity more than made up for the temporary lull. When combined, October and November sales amounted to the largest totals in five years.

Cary Bertolone, an owner of Bertolone Realty in Santa Rosa, said the increased sales came as fire survivors began to better understand their futures. Bertolone counts himself among that group after losing his own Santa Rosa home in the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood off Parker Hill Road.

Those who lost homes generally have heard that they’ll be better off financially if they find a rental and rebuild, Bertolone said. But some elderly survivors have concluded that rebuilding would require too much time and energy, while many living in hotels and apartments have found the cramped quarters too uncomfortable.

Many, he said, ended up concluding, as he did, “I need a house. I need some stability. And that’s more important than money.”

Bertolone said he ended up renting a house that he recently helped one of his investor clients purchase.

The wildfires have shaken up a housing market that in this millennium already has weathered a housing crisis and a historic slowdown in new home construction.

In the midst of a national housing bubble, the county’s median home price set a record high of $619,000 in August 2005 — a figure that, adjusted for inflation, would now amount to about $777,000. When the market crashed, the median price here plunged to a low of $305,000 in February 2009.

Home prices now have risen steadily for five years.

Most brokers interviewed said the increased demand has led to significant jumps in the prices that buyers are willing to pay.

“We’re seeing the market push it up 15 to 20 percent on some of these listings,” said Lori Sacco, managing broker for Vanguard Properties in Sebastopol.

In making offers, Laws said, he has seen buyers exceed sellers’ asking prices by more than $100,000.

“There’s been multiple offers on nearly everything that goes under contract,” he said.

November ended with fewer than 520 homes on the market. That amounted to 1.1 months supply of inventory at the current sales pace, the smallest such measure in the past year.

Despite the fire, the county housing market still is following a seasonal pattern where sales now remain below the height of summer. Nonetheless, November sales topped those for all months this year except June and August.

Brokers said buyers face not only a decrease in inventory, but also a relatively strong economy and low interest rates.

“You have a recipe for long-term pressure on prices upward,” said Brian Connell, managing broker of the Mission Boulevard office in Santa Rosa of Coldwell Banker.

The county housing market has favored sellers for the past several years, in part because of the limited supply of both new and existing houses for sale. For more than a year, civic and business leaders have called the lack of housing here a crisis that needs to be mitigated.

As a result of the fires, Santa Rosa lost about 5 percent of its housing stock. Brokers said the market likely will continue to face unusually high demand until builders replace what was lost.

“Things will start to settle down,” said Sacco, “when we get some things rebuilt.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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