With home prices still more than 40 percent off their peak, investors and second-home buyers keep snapping up significant amounts of Sonoma County real estate.
For the first half of the year, absentee buyers purchased 30 percent of the houses and condos sold in the county, according to DataQuick, a real estate information service. That rate was up 1 percent from the same period a year earlier.
Real estate agents said absentee buyers — investors and second-home buyers — have been drawn by lower prices, historically low mortgage rates and increased confidence that prices aren't going much lower.
Buying rentals can produce a better return than putting cash into many fixed investments, the agents said. That applies even without considering any future appreciation in home value.
"It's a great time to be a landlord," said Daniel Casabonne, an agent with Frank Howard Allen in Sonoma.
Similarly, some second-home buyers once thought "the Wine Country was out of their league" due to pricing, said Mike Kelly, an agent with Keller Williams in Santa Rosa.
Now those buyers are looking here, agents said, often with an eye to moving to the county permanently after retirement.
For the first half of the year, 952 of the 3,144 houses and condos sold in the county were purchased by absentee buyers, according to DataQuick, which is based in San Diego.
Among the county's cities, Cotati had the highest portion of home sales to absentee buyers at 42 percent. Petaluma had the least, at 19 percent.
<NO1>That was followed by Sebastopol, 37 percent; Healdsburg, 35 percent; Sonoma, 34 percent; Rohnert Park, 28 percent; Santa Rosa and Windsor, both 27 percent; Cloverdale, 21 percent; and Petaluma, 19 percent.
<NO>The numbers are based on sales in which the new owners receive tax bills and related correspondence at addresses other than the homes. It can be a less precise measurement in some rural communities where homeowners receive their mail at post office boxes.
Even so, experts around the country agree that waves of investors have been drawn to residential real estate.
The National Association of Realtors this spring estimated that investor home purchases in 2011 rose nearly 65 percent from a year earlier to 1.23 million homes. In contrast, owner-occupied purchases declined nearly 16 percent to 2.78 million homes.
"During the past year, investors have been swooping into the market to take advantage of bargain home prices," Lawrence Yun, the association's chief economist, said in the report. "Rising rental income easily beat cash sitting in banks as an added inducement."
The California Association of Realtors reports that investment purchases in the state reached 17 percent in 2011, compared with 13 percent a year earlier.
Vacation home sales in 2011 amounted to 11 percent of all transactions nationally and 7<TH>percent in California. Both state and national vacation home sales showed modest gains from 2010.
DataQuick has recorded a growing portion of absentee buyers in the nine-county Bay Area. Such buyers made up 23 percent of all sales in June. That compares with 20 percent a year earlier and 16 percent in June 2010.
Sonoma County's median home price peaked in August 2005 at $619,000 before tumbling to $305,000 in February 2009. In the past two years, monthly median prices have seesawed in a narrow range and ended June at $348,000.