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Sonoma County homebuyers no longer in ‘panic mode,’ but prices unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels

For the past eight months, Salvatore Taormina has been looking to move from his home in Petaluma to a larger, more modern property on the west side of town.

The problem was that the local real estate market went insane.

Bidding wars, cash deals and offers six figures above the asking price became the norm.

The frenzy was pure supply and demand: too much demand, partly fueled by a rush of pandemic homebuyers from San Francisco, Silicon Valley and beyond pouring into Sonoma County; and not enough supply after 6,000 homes were wiped out in wildfires over the past few years.

“I’m not used to having to go against 10 or 20 people overbidding hundreds-of-thousands on a home that’s already overpriced,” Taormina said.

It has been more than a year after the home market took off in the summer of 2020, and sale prices remain at historic highs. But local real estate agents say they’re seeing the intense competition begin to wane, leading to some softening of prices.

“Buyers are not in panic mode anymore,” said Carol Lexa, former president of the North Bay Association of Realtors.

For Taormina, a 61-year-old retired paramedic firefighter, that means house hunting has become a lot less stressful.

“I’m a lot happier from a buyer's perspective,” said Taormina. “I feel more comfortable seeing a house and just waiting a little bit to see what’s on the market.”

No return to pre-pandemic levels

And though things have leveled off somewhat, that doesn’t mean Sonoma County home prices are about to suddenly come crashing back to pre-pandemic levels.

Local estate agents say they’re continuing to field a steady stream of buyers from other parts of the Bay Area who are freed from the office by remote work or are seeking more living space and relatively cheaper homes. And the amount of houses on the market remains scarce.

“This is the new normal,” said Jim Michaelsen, a sales manager at Compass Real Estate in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

In September, the midpoint sale price for single-family houses in the county hit $755,000, a 2% dip from the month before. But that was still a 5% increase from September of last year, according to data compiled by Michaelsen.

Compared to September 2019, prior to the pandemic, the county’s median home price has rocketed by more than $100,000, or 16%, from $653,300.

A total of 507 homes were sold in the county in September, a 16% decrease from the month prior and a 6% drop from September last year. By the end of the month, just 605 houses were still on the market, a 14% decline from the month before and a 12% drop year-over-year.

The fairly even ratio of homes sold to unsold suggests the county’s limited single-family house inventory is struggling to meet the increased demand, real estate agents said.

Compass broker/realtors Kate Gomes, left, and Ann Amtower show a home to Tonya Masino and Sotheby's broker associate Carole Sauers in Healdsburg on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Compass broker/realtors Kate Gomes, left, and Ann Amtower show a home to Tonya Masino and Sotheby's broker associate Carole Sauers in Healdsburg on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

No bubble in sight

Local real estate agents and economists agree the soaring prices likely don’t reflect a local housing bubble on the verge of bursting.

That confidence is in part because of the dearth of properties coming on the market as the region continues to rebuild after losing roughly 6,000 homes in wildfires since 2017.

Of that number, only about half been rebuilt. Building of new homes has slowed this year as the cost of building materials has spiked and global supply chains have been disrupted. In August, the overall cost of building materials in the U.S. was up 19% year-over-year, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

The current market dynamic stands in contrast to the lead-up to the last major housing crash in 2007, when banks gave out risky loans to buyers who artificially bid up home prices amid a widespread building boom, according to Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler.

“We don’t have the same supply and demand conditions as in say 2005 or 2008,” Eyler said. “I think we’re going to be cruising at this altitude for the next two to three years, barring an economic collapse.”

Eyler also pointed to measures by the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low during the pandemic, allowing more homebuyers to take advantage of favorable mortgages.

Even when higher interest rates eventually do return, the shift to remote work could mean Sonoma County will remain a viable option for buyers who may otherwise not have considered leaving urban centers in the Bay Area and the rest of California. That has raised concerns the influx could exacerbate the region’s already existing housing shortage — and whether middle-class families in the county will ever be able to afford to buy homes.

“We’re probably going to see some upward pressure on rents ...,” Eyler said. “The rising cost of housing will certainly push away some low- and middle-income households.”

High-end increases

So far this year, single-family home sales and prices have seen the largest increase in many of the most expensive parts of the county.

Through September, a total of 1,250 homes sold for more than $1 million. That’s up from 695 homes in that range for the same period last year.

That’s thanks in part to very wealthy buyers — many benefiting from rising stock portfolios during the pandemic — snapping up vacation homes, real estate agents said.

Along the Sonoma Coast, a popular area for second homes, the median home price was $1.42 million through the first nine months of 2021, up from $908,000 last year. In Healdsburg, another vacation destination, the midpoint price was $1.06 million, up from $860,000.

Compass broker/realtor Ann Amtower, left, talks with Sotheby's broker associate Carole Sauers while showing a home for sale in Healdsburg on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Compass broker/realtor Ann Amtower, left, talks with Sotheby's broker associate Carole Sauers while showing a home for sale in Healdsburg on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Ann Amtower, a real estate agent in Healdsburg, said more than half of second-home purchases she was involved in were made by people with a primary residence in San Francisco or the surrounding area. She said many of those buyers have ended up spending a majority of their time in Healdsburg, giving life to the city’s historic district, where second homes once sat empty most of the year.

“The lights are on and everybody’s home,” Amtower said.

Heading into the colder months — the traditional slow season for real estate — buyers could see a seasonal decline in prices, which for the most part didn’t materialize last fall and winter, according to David Rendino, a broker with RE/MAX Marketplace in Cotati.

“We're getting back to the boring real estate market that we’ve come to know and love,” Rendino said.

Taormina, the home seeker in Petaluma, who has hired Rendino as a broker, is counting on that shift, even if it doesn’t mean the market will return to its pre-pandemic state.

“Things were just going crazy here with people overbidding,” Taormina said. “I was telling David, let’s just wait. I think things will stabilize.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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