Wave of fire-ravaged lots put up for sale in Sonoma County
The choice was easy for Warren and Lori Luke.
As their belongings accumulated from 37 years of marriage still smoldered inside the ruins of their Coffey Park home, the Santa Rosa couple decided they would not stick around to rebuild.
Instead, the Lukes decided to put their lot on Kerry Lane up for sale and accelerate long-held plans to move back to Oregon, where they will be closer to family and avoid both the headaches and heartaches ahead as their neighborhood attempts to recover from the most destructive wildfires in California history.
“I told her as soon as this happened that I wanted to move up there now,” said Warren Luke, 58, a service route manager for Ecolab. “I didn't want to rebuild, I didn't want to wait.”
Two months after the October wildfires leveled more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa, “For Sale” signs are popping on vacant lots in Coffey Park and other fire-ravaged neighborhoods, as a growing number of property owners reach similar conclusions.
At least two-dozen empty lots are now listed for sale in north Santa Rosa, concentrated in Coffey Park, Fountaingrove and Larkfield-Wikiup. Prices vary widely, and are often a quarter of what they would have cost with a home still standing.
Some sellers don't want to wait the two years or more it could take to rebuild their homes. Others want to make a fresh start elsewhere, using proceeds from the sale of their lots and their insurance settlements to pay off the mortgage on their former homes and buy a new house in another community.
For buyers, the vacant lots provide the unique chance to build a custom home in an established neighborhood that already has public utility hookups. They include real estate developers and land speculators - Cash 4 Houses signs offer to buy properties “in any condition” - who are prepared to make a bet on the resiliency of Sonoma County.
Gallaher Homes, led by Santa Rosa developer Bill Gallaher, is offering $105,000 to $125,000 for lots in Coffey Park, depending on parcel size. The program - which guarantees full payment within two weeks of the property being cleared - isn't for everyone, said a Gallaher spokeswoman, but the company believes it has priced the lots fairly.
Aaron Matz, president of Santa Rosa homebuilder APM Homes, said the value of the Coffey Park lots could exceed $125,000 if the properties are exempt from city impact fees, which can amount to more than $50,000 per parcel. Even so, he suggested the lot prices are still being established.
“It's kind of the Wild West in determining the value of these lots,” he said.
Local real estate agents anticipate a growing number of property owners who lost homes in the fires will place their lots on the market in the coming weeks and months. Until the market is established, many are baffled by how to appropriately price vacant properties.
“Right now we're just trying to figure out what the hell the price is going to be,” said Mike Kelly, real estate agent for Keller Williams Realty in Santa Rosa. “That's the biggest problem.”
In Fountaingrove, lot price tags are all over the map, from the low $300,000s to high $700,000s. Back in Coffey Park, a cleared lot off Crimson Lane received multiple offers in a single day, selling for $160,000 - about a quarter of its estimated value when it still had an intact home.
The Lukes' residential lot on Kerry Lane was the first of a handful of similar properties to hit the market, according to several local real estate agents.
After the fires were extinguished, the Lukes returned to the ruins of the home where they had lived for 15 years to sift through the rubble.
There was no evidence of the antique bed where Lori's grandfather was born. Their washer and dryer set melted over onto itself, and the remains of their Mini Cooper rested in the driveway. They found pieces of a vintage Avon nativity set and the beer stein collection they built over three decades - and then they dialed a real estate agent.
“When I put it on the market, I had over 100 calls on this property from agents and people who saw it on the internet,” said Cindy Wise, part owner of Rohnert Park-based Safer Properties and who worked as the Lukes' broker. “It sold so quick - we went into contract within 48 hours.”
The price: $135,000, a fraction of the $550,000 other homes in the neighborhood were valued at before the fire.
The Lukes put the lot on the market quickly because they wanted to beat the onslaught of empty lots expected soon.
“We decided we wanted to price to sell,” said Lori, 56, who plans to transfer in her position at First Tech Credit Union north to Oregon. “It was an amount that made sense for us, knowing that we would rather sell it now and it would be gone than to price it out of anyone's range, and when 100 of these are on the market.”
Added Warren: “I didn't want to haggle price. I wasn't going to take less than what we originally asked for. I just told them what to sell it for, but not for dirt cheap.”
With rebuilding costs as varied and wide-ranging as the asking prices for fire-scorched lots, more owners may choose to list sooner than later and just move on, say real estate agents.
“It's kind of sad, people getting mixed messages for what contractors will charge to rebuild,” said Wise, whose firm is preparing to list two more fire-stricken lots. “This is going to be a crazy ride to see how all of this plays out.”
Staff Writer Robert Digitale contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been revised to correct the number of homes that burned in Santa Rosa in October's wildfires.