Like other Tubbs fire survivors, Kris and Allen Sudduth initially wanted to rebuild their two-story home in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood.
After the October 2017 wildfire, the Sudduths met with a builder and tentatively selected a home design for their lot on Hopper Avenue. After further consideration, they concluded a contractor couldn't rebuild the life they once had in the fire-ravaged neighborhood in the northwest section of the city.
“They would build a house, but it wouldn't be my home,” said Kris Sudduth, a part-time nurse.
The Sudduths realized what they really wanted was a chance to start over in a different area with a home in the countryside. So in May 2018, they bought a single-story ranchette on a half-acre property west of Santa Rosa. A month earlier, they had sold their charred Coffey Park lot to an investor, who has yet to begin rebuilding a house on it.
This will be a pivotal year of decision for about 2,100 Sonoma County fire survivors - those who unlike the Sudduths have yet to commit to rebuilding or selling their burned lots. These survivors constitute about 40 percent of people who lost 5,334 homes in the 2017 wildfires, predominantly from the Tubbs fire, which ranks as the second-most destructive wildfire in California history.
What they ultimately decide to do will determine whether the pace of rebuilding on the large swath of north Santa Rosa, blackened by the infernos, accelerates this year. Only 150 of the houses destroyed in the fires have been rebuilt as of last week, according to city and county records.
Of property owners opting to sell their lots, their reasons range from the difficulty of rebuilding to the desire to find another place to live - sometimes neither in a burned area nor a construction zone.
This year also will be key for investors and builders trying to determine whether they can make money in a sluggish local housing market on speculative home construction on lots scorched by the fires. For many, it will be the first year they build and try to sell so-called “spec” houses in the Santa Rosa neighborhoods - Fountaingrove, Coffey Park, Larkfield and Mark West Springs - burned most severely by the Tubbs fire.
Potential glut of burned lots on the market
Fifteen months after the fires, a Press Democrat analysis of the listings and sales of burned lots in Sonoma County, and the progress of post-fire home rebuilding, shows fire survivors selling their torched land find themselves in a buyers' market. The number of available lots to choose from far exceeds monthly sales. Real estate agents worry the ample supply of such lots could balloon this year, if many fire survivors decide not to rebuild where their homes were burned.
From November 2017 through December 2018, 717 empty burned lots in Sonoma County have been listed for sale, and 444 of them have been sold for a median sales price of $254,750. The greatest number of lots listed and sold were in Fountaingrove, where 336 lots were listed and 197 were sold, including nine that were sold and put back on the market. The area where the fewest lots went on the market, 38, and were sold, 19, was in Sonoma Valley. During the 13-month period, the median sales price of the burned lots sold ranged from $190,000 in Coffey Park to $505,000 in Sonoma Valley.
Among the highlights of The Press Democrat's analysis of fire lots:
More than 75 percent of the sales of all empty residential lots sold countywide during the first nine months of 2018 were parcels where homes burned in the fires. The number of those overall lot sales more than tripled from the same nine-month period of 2017, according to Compass real estate brokerage.
At the end of December 2018, there were nearly eight months of inventory of fire lots for sale based on the pace of monthly sales.
Although more fire lots are for sale in Fountaingrove, the hillside neighborhood thus far lags Coffey Park in home rebuilding. Owners there have sought building permits for about one-third of all of the neighborhood's burned properties, compared with nearly two-thirds of owners who have gotten permits to rebuild on fire lots in Coffey Park.
More than half of the burned lots listed for sale in Fountaingrove have been sold.
A larger portion of listed fire lots remain unsold in the county's rural areas compared with city neighborhoods. Three of four listed lots have sold in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood, compared with four in 10 in Sonoma Valley and the Mark West and Riebli areas, from east of John B. Riebli School to Calistoga.