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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.

Ann Harris, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Sebastopol, said two of her clients recently purchased second homes in the county and hope to move to them permanently within the next five years. She has another three clients looking for such properties.

<CW-25>Harris said spouses are telling one another, "The prices are so good and interest rates so low. Let's buy the retirement home for the future now."

</CW>Among the county's communities, Bodega Bay remains unsurpassed, with eight of every 10 homes sold to absentee buyers. Agents believe most of those homes are purchased as second homes, but some are turned into vacation rentals.

Dennis Erba, broker/owner of Coldwell Banker Coast & Country in Bodega Bay, said typically a quarter of the buyers live in the county, a quarter come from the Bay Area and about half come from the Central Valley. However, that appears to have shifted after housing prices tumbled and property owners saw equity plummet.

"Sacramento did get hit pretty hard," Erba said. "It does seem there's more people from the Bay Area" now seeking coastal properties.

A handful of communities saw big jumps in absentee buyers from the previous year. Windsor recorded 61 such sales this year, up from 33 in 2011. Guerneville sales jumped to 42 from 21, while Cotati rose to 28 from 17 and Sonoma increased to 88 from 63.

David Rendino, an agent with RE/MAX Pros in Rohnert Park, said a number of the Cotati home purchases likely were made by investors because of the town's proximity to Sonoma State University.

"You always have a sure thing there, because there's always a need for rental housing," he said.

Agents said investors and second-home buyers will continue to comprise a significant share of county home buyers.

One reason is the low cost of money. As an investor, Harris said she recently received a 30-year, fixed mortgage at 4.25 percent for one of her own rental properties.

Casabonne, who last year was the county's top agent with $38 million in sales, said second-home buyers continue to value country settings, especially among the vineyards.

"With Sonoma," he said, "it's a destination location."

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com)