Cary Bertolone has eight home sales in escrow.
Seven of them are all-cash deals.
Bertolone, a co-owner in his family's Bertolone Realty in Santa Rosa, acknowledged he was a little shocked to look back and realize that more than half the deals he personally closed last year were done solely with cash.
He attributes it largely to more-conservative investors who want a decent return on their cash and who don't want to worry about making mortgage payments in an uncertain economy.
"There's a lot of old money getting into real estate," Bertolone said. "They don't want to take chances."
2012 was a banner year for cash sales in Sonoma County, with 2,122 condos and houses sold without conventional financing, according to real estate information service DataQuick.
Cash sales amounted to one in every three homes sold in the county. It was the largest number of such deals since at least 2000 and possibly the most ever.
The largest group of cash buyers appear to be investors who plan to rent out the properties or fix them up and resell them.
"It is why there are so many more cash transactions now," said Mary Anne Veldkamp, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.
California last year set a record with 145,797 cash deals, which amounted to 32.4 percent of all home sales, according to DataQuick. It was double the annual average of 15.6 percent going back to 1991.
The wealthy long have used cash to buy second homes in the county. These days they have been joined by the self-employed, who find it difficult to get loans; by parents helping adult children get their first home; and by baby boomers who have received inheritances.
"There's money being passed down the family tree, which can be invested," said Tim Freeman, manager of Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.
Investors with cash often tell agents they are looking for better returns than 1 percent in today's savings accounts. And they are aware that the median single-family sales price in the county today remains 41 percent below its peak of $619,000 in August 2005.
"The property values have dropped so much that it's a good time to buy," said Don Rinkor, a buyer of commercial and rental properties for two decades and owner of Economy Lock and Key in Santa Rosa.
Rinkor, a client of Bertolone, said he expects to receive a return of 5 to 6 percent annually on his new rental properties, not including appreciation. But he insists on paying cash rather than using loans to increase his holdings.
"If you're leveraged, you can tie up a lot more real estate," he said. "But the downside is you're taking a big risk."
The number of the county's cash sales hit a low for the last decade of 706 in 2006 -- 14 percent of all sales that year. Cash transactions since have steadily increased for six straight years.
In a normal market, downsizing empty nesters and retirees constitute the biggest category of cash buyers, said DataQuick President John Walsh. But today's cash market is fueled largely by investors, he said, including those "chasing what they view as the deal of a lifetime."
The cash buyers have stepped in to buy foreclosure resales and other properties that require so much renovation that banks won't lend on them, agents said. The buyers fix them up and either rent them out or put them back on the market.
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