Sonoma County's median home price dipped to its lowest level in more than 2 1/2 years in October as investors and first-time buyers purchased large numbers of financially distressed properties.
The median sales price for a single-family home dipped to $310,000, down almost 10 percent from September, according to The Press Democrat monthly housing report compiled by Coldwell Banker manager Rick Laws.
It is the lowest level since February 2009, when the median fell to $305,000 — the record low since prices began their slide more than four years ago.
Other sales data don't indicate that home values overall are dropping, Laws said. Instead, the numbers tell a story of available buyers concentrating purchases among lower-priced starter homes.
Even so, he acknowledged, the large numbers of foreclosures and short sales suggest that home owners may have a long wait before prices rebound.
"It will happen," Laws said, "but we can't see it from here."
Home prices climbed steadily for a decade, pushing the median to a record high of $619,000 in August 2005. But today, many homes are selling for about the same price as they did in 2001, and more than a quarter of county borrowers owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
In October, buyers purchased 409 single-family homes in Sonoma County, up 5 percent from September and up 28 percent from a year earlier. Almost half those sales involved foreclosures or short sales, which are homes selling for less than the amount of the mortgage.
Sales data for the first 10 months of the year show divergent trends in two key price segments.
Through October, sales of starter homes priced under $300,000 have increased 41 percent over the same period from a year earlier. But sales have dropped 19 percent in what is typically considered the "move-up" market segment of $400,000 to $700,000.
Cary Bertolone, co-owner of Bertolone Realty in Santa Rosa, said "the uncertainty of world economies" seems responsible for both sale trends.
At the low end of the market, he said, investors are moving funds and purchasing homes for rental properties.
But plenty of existing homeowners are too nervous to consider buying more expensive homes today.
"People are being conservative," Bertolone said. "They're trying to stay within their means."
John Duran, president of the Santa Rosa chapter of the North Bay Association of Realtors, agreed "the confidence isn't coming from the general public" but from investors.
"They're pulling their funds out of stocks" and out of accounts earning low interest rates, he said. Those investors are purchasing rental properties that are selling for roughly half the price of six years ago.
About a fifth of Bay Area home sales involve investors, according to real estate information firm DataQuick.
Laws said buyers this fall have fewer choices in the starter segment of the market. The lack of inventory is forcing some to buy "rougher," lower-priced foreclosures or to purchase short sales.
The number of available short sales on the market at the end of October reached a record-low 279 homes, nearly half the number for sale a year ago.
Meanwhile, last month the median sales price for a foreclosure taken back by a lender hit a record low for the current real estate cycle of $236,600, down 18 percent from a year earlier. In contrast, the median price for a short sale in October was $275,000 and $395,000 for a sale where the owner had some equity in the home.