Fifteen years ago, real estate broker Scott Adams could count on home sales at Bodega Bay falling into three roughly equal categories: one-third for primary residences, one-third for second homes and one third for vacation rentals.
Today, only about 15 percent of the homes are bought as year-round residences, said Adams, owner of Adams Realty. The remaining properties become some type of vacation home, and increasingly they are purchased by Sonoma County residents.
The locals, he said, are buying close to home so they can escape stressful work weeks in the central county and enjoy weekend getaways beside the blue Pacific.
The new buyers tell Adams, "We go to the coast. We go to our house. We totally decompress."
Long before it became Wine Country, Sonoma County was an attraction for those who wanted to escape big cities and vacation among redwoods, beaches and the winding Russian River. The banks of the Russian River and the surrounding forested hills were developed over a century ago with resorts and summer homes.
Today, the county's premium wine industry attracts outsiders who want second homes nestled near vineyards or close to town squares with trendy restaurants. And with the plunge in housing prices, some have decided that now is the time to buy those getaways.
"Sonoma County's on sale," said Lisa Thomas, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa who specializes in country properties.
Tracking second-home sales is difficult, but new data shows that absentee buyers account for a large number of sales in areas popular with vacationers.
Nine out of every 10 homes sold this year in Bodega Bay were purchased by buyers who don't live there, either investors or those buying second homes, according to DataQuick, a Santa Diego-based real estate data firm.
For Guerneville and Glen Ellen, the number of absentee buyers was six in 10. It was four in 10 in Healdsburg.
For the entire county, the number was nearly three in 10. That was the same rate in Santa Rosa, where most of the absentee buyers are likely investors buying rental property.
Vacation homes accounted for 10 percent of all U.S. homes sold last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. In comparison, investors bought 17 percent of homes sold last year.
The market share for vacation homes held steady despite "extraordinarily tight credit conditions" for buying such properties, the association's chief economist, Lawrence Yun, said in a spring report. A number of buyers paid cash for their homes. Even so, the buyer's median income of $99,100 was lower than in recent years.
"The fall in home prices has opened opportunities for more families to enter the second-home market," Yun said.
The California Association of Realtors estimates that vacation homes made up about 5 percent of all housing sales in the state last year.
Agents who sell second homes gave mixed views on the strength of the current market.
In Cloverdale, agents Jane and Ron Pavelka reported that five of their 17 sales this year were for second homes.
"I've never seen this many second-home buyers," said Jane Pavelka, who works in Healdsburg as part of Wine Country Group Realtors.
She also has never seen such a high rate of cash buyers — seven of the 17.