Rents rise after Sonoma County fires as luxury vacation homes come on the market

The median rent jumped 36 percent in Sonoma County in the days after the fire, according to Zillow, a real estate website. Find out what's behind the surge.|

The cost of a median-priced rental on one real estate website jumped sharply in Sonoma and Napa counties after this month’s wildfires, a surge apparently accelerated by an influx of luxury vacation rentals into the local housing market.

The median rent in Sonoma County rose 36 percent to $3,224 in a weeklong period after the fires, compared to September, according to online real estate site Zillow. Napa County experienced a 23 percent jump in the median rent to $3,094 for the same seven-day period ending Oct. 18.

In contrast, the median rent fell 4 percent in Marin County during the same period and rose 1 percent in Solano County.

The sample of available rentals was admittedly small: about 30 properties in Sonoma and 26 in Napa listed on Zillow’s website.

The vast majority were for properties that hadn’t appeared on Zillow in at least the past eight years.

“About 80 percent of the listings that we saw that week are for listings that we’d never seen before,” Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist at Zillow, said Tuesday.

That likely means some of the properties formerly were used as vacation rentals, he said. Even so, the increase in the median rent after the fire also likely reflects some appreciation in the value of existing rental properties, Terrazas said.

Thousands of families lost their homes during wildfires in both counties, he noted.

“That’s an enormous kind of demand that’s suddenly there,” he said.

A large increase in demand for housing could prompt more vacation home owners to place their properties on the rental market, said Randy Knight, CEO of the vacation rental company Insurance companies “are begging us” for such properties for their clients, he said.

Among the rentals he offered Tuesday on Zillow was a four-bedroom home near Sebastopol, listed at $13,000 a month. The fully furnished home normally rents for up to $650 per weekend night and $12,000 a month, he said, meaning the proposed rent increase amounts to less than the 10 percent limit set under state price-gouging laws.

Three potential renters were scheduled to see the house Tuesday, Knight said.

Zillow has not collected enough data yet to determine if price gouging is occurring in Sonoma County’s rental market, a company spokeswoman said. State law generally prohibits rent increases of more than 10 percent during a declared emergency. As such, Terrazas said he doubted landlords seeking “excessive hikes” would try to make their deals using publicly available sites like Zillow.

Zillow will release a report later this fall measuring rent changes for the full month of October. That report will attempt to control shifts in the types of rental properties coming onto the market.

Sonoma County rents climbed 48 percent in a ?six-year period ending in August, Terrazas said, based on an analysis of properties listed on Zillow. County rents rose only modestly this summer.

The median rent in Sonoma and Napa after the fires was for a property of 1,300 square feet, most likely a three-bedroom house.

For the city of Santa Rosa, the median rent in the days after the fire climbed to $2,982, a 16 percent increase compared to September.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285.

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