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Sonoma County’s hot housing market prompts buying frenzy, record prices

Sonoma County’s hot housing market

Single-family home prices surged the past three months to reach a record median price in May.

May 2021:

$780,000 median price, 546 homes sold

May 2020:

$674,495 median price, 206 homes sold

April 2021:

$775,000 median price, 580 homes sold

April 2020:

$659,000 median price, 249 homes sold

March 2021:

$767,000 median price, 421 homes sold

March 2020:

$678,910 median price, 301 homes sold

Source: Compass real estate brokerage, Santa Rosa

The coronavirus pandemic flattened a great deal of the Sonoma County economy. But it’s proven no match for the surging housing market.

Sales and prices of single-family homes notched consistent gains since last summer against strong economic headwinds. In the past three months, however, prices skyrocketed to astonishing levels never seen before in an area accustomed to outsized price tags on houses.

The median price of the 546 existing homes sold countywide in May reached an all-time high of $780,000, up 16.5% from the same month a year ago.

That smashed the record $775,000 median price on 580 home sales in April, a 17.6% yearly jump. The March median was $767,000, a 13% annual boost.

Despite soaring prices, buyers, many flush with cash, are snapping up homes in lightning-quick fashion. The frenetic pace of monthly sales volume, which more than doubled from a year ago in both April and May and remains induced by low interest rates, left a sharply limited inventory of single-family houses to sell before additional properties were listed for sale in June.

Rick Laws, a regional vice president at Compass real estate brokerage in Santa Rosa, said the housing market is so hyperactive “it’s almost a rule” that buyers make offers “shockingly over the asking price with no contingencies” to competitively vie for houses. “And that’s a risky, market-driven strategy.”

What that means is most would-be homebuyers are waiving common protections for themselves by making offers without stipulations that: houses pass an independent inspection; they can definitively obtain financing; a lender appraise a house to ensure the asking price is in line with its value; and a title search of a property doesn’t turn up any unsettled liens or unpaid taxes.

While a robust housing sector bodes well for the overall health of the local economy, county residential property has gotten so hot, many middle-class working residents remain stuck in rental homes. In fact, only 27% of all county residents — roughly 1 in 4 — can afford the hefty down payment, monthly mortgage payment and property insurance to purchase a home at the median price, according to the California Association of Realtors’ housing affordability index.

Laws, who compiles monthly market updates for The Press Democrat, attributed the area’s supercharged housing juggernaut to a “COVID bounce.” Fueling that bounce and driving home prices through the roof, he said, are high net worth buyers mainly from San Francisco and Los Angeles converging here to snap up houses because the pandemic continues enabling white-collar professionals, who had reported to offices, to work from home.

“People are fleeing urban density for more open space,” he said. “Compared to San Francisco and Marin County, Sonoma County is on sale.”

Jenni Klose, executive director of Generation Housing, an independent housing advocacy organization, called the county’s median single-family home prices “staggering” and the latest affirmation of a 20-year-old predicament: a housing shortage that’s heavily contributed to worsening home affordability for buyers and renters.

In the past four years, wildfires have exacerbated the housing shortfall. In 2017 alone, devastating fires — predominantly the historic Tubbs blaze — destroyed 5,300 homes in the county essentially in a day. Subsequent blazes in 2019 and 2020 burned down about 660 more houses. Comparatively, over the last decade, around 5,000 new houses and apartments were built countywide.

“The bottom line is we don’t have enough housing and we need to be building it,’’ Klose said. Her nonprofit recently released a report stating that 58,000 houses and apartments need to be built by 2030 for purchase and lease to alleviate the longstanding housing shortfall plus handle additional demand for homes here through the decade.

As the pandemic fades, the potential for widespread economic recovery heightens with the much-anticipated full business and public reopening set for Tuesday. At the same time, the runaway local housing market exerts extra wage pressure on businesses still grappling with depleted staffs and increases the likelihood more residents will leave.

Actually, housing affordability presents a monumental challenge statewide, with a midpoint single-family house sale price now at $813,980. There are few cities and towns to live in California where the majority of residents can afford to become homeowners.

“Not only do skyrocketing home prices threaten already-low homeownership levels and make it harder for those who don’t already have a home to purchase one, it also brings to question the sustainability of this market cycle,” said Jordan Levine, chief economist with the state Realtors’ association.

Sonoma County’s hot housing market

Single-family home prices surged the past three months to reach a record median price in May.

May 2021:

$780,000 median price, 546 homes sold

May 2020:

$674,495 median price, 206 homes sold

April 2021:

$775,000 median price, 580 homes sold

April 2020:

$659,000 median price, 249 homes sold

March 2021:

$767,000 median price, 421 homes sold

March 2020:

$678,910 median price, 301 homes sold

Source: Compass real estate brokerage, Santa Rosa

In Sonoma County, the housing market has shifted in favor of wealthy buyers. In the May home transactions report drafted by Laws, there’s an eye-opening statistic revealing that the county has a burgeoning millionaires row of homeowners. Last month, the biggest group of purchases by price bracket was 128 homes closed between $1 million and $1.9 million.

Another 32 houses changed hands for $2 million to $3.9 million and there were seven transactions in which buyers paid $4 million or more. Through five months of the year, there have been 587 single-family houses in the county sold for at least $1 million, a threefold leap from 181 closed in that million-dollar-plus range through May 2020.

“It totally will drive some people out of the market because we don’t have that many high-paying jobs here,” Laws said, of those opting to give up trying to buy a house. “But every time somebody leaves Sonoma County, there seems to be somebody coming behind them with more money.”

Timothy Brown, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent in Santa Rosa, said with pandemic uncertainty getting resolved the vibrant housing sector is a reflection of “economic optimism that the worst is behind us. The market is expecting growth.”

How long will that exuberance keep pushing area home prices higher? Not beyond the middle of next year, Brown said.

“It will calm down at some point because buyers will no longer push beyond the list price,” he said, noting another signal of the housing market cooling will be when a monthly mortgage payment on a home exceeds what the property could command in rent.

Heading into the usually busy summer home-selling season, the supply of single-family houses available on the local market has plunged to only 4 or 5 weeks of homes — before new listings. About two months of housing inventory has been typical for the county, which has had an active market for years. The rule of thumb for a balanced market is to have a 4-to-6-month supply of available homes to sell at the current rate of sales, according to the state Realtors’ group.

In May, by far the largest number of countywide home sales, 211, closed in Santa Rosa. The median price was $705,000, with the city’s southwest section the cheapest at $638,000 and the northeast part the most expensive at $900,000.

Prices houses sold for last month based on location made the lower Russian River area, namely Guerneville, Forestville and Monte Rio, the least expensive with a $580,000 median.

Healdsburg, the heart of Wine Country prime grape vineyards, was the priciest with a median sale price tag of $1.45 million. Midpoint range sales also were a $1 million or more in the towns of Sonoma and Sebastopol, west Petaluma area and along the Sonoma Coast. Inland, Rohnert Park-Cotati area and Cloverdale came in between $685,000 and $700,000, while east Petaluma cost buyers in the mid-range $785,000.

Laws of Compass has been selling homes in Sonoma County 40 years. He has seen plenty of market swings. Anything like this booming market?

“It’s been hot before,” he said, “but not this hot. No, never.”

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