Scott Adams, broker/owner of Adams Realty, has a property for sale in the Bodega Harbour neighborhood in Bodega Bay.

Buyers look for vacation homes in Sonoma County

Fifteen years ago, real estate broker Scott Adams could count on home sales at Bodega Bay falling into three roughly equal categories: one-third for primary residences, one-third for second homes and one third for vacation rentals.

Today, only about 15 percent of the homes are bought as year-round residences, said Adams, owner of Adams Realty. The remaining properties become some type of vacation home, and increasingly they are purchased by Sonoma County residents.

The locals, he said, are buying close to home so they can escape stressful work weeks in the central county and enjoy weekend getaways beside the blue Pacific.

The new buyers tell Adams, "We go to the coast. We go to our house. We totally decompress."

Long before it became Wine Country, Sonoma County was an attraction for those who wanted to escape big cities and vacation among redwoods, beaches and the winding Russian River. The banks of the Russian River and the surrounding forested hills were developed over a century ago with resorts and summer homes.

Today, the county's premium wine industry attracts outsiders who want second homes nestled near vineyards or close to town squares with trendy restaurants. And with the plunge in housing prices, some have decided that now is the time to buy those getaways.

"Sonoma County's on sale," said Lisa Thomas, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa who specializes in country properties.

Tracking second-home sales is difficult, but new data shows that absentee buyers account for a large number of sales in areas popular with vacationers.

Nine out of every 10 homes sold this year in Bodega Bay were purchased by buyers who don't live there, either investors or those buying second homes, according to DataQuick, a Santa Diego-based real estate data firm.

For Guerneville and Glen Ellen, the number of absentee buyers was six in 10. It was four in 10 in Healdsburg.

For the entire county, the number was nearly three in 10. That was the same rate in Santa Rosa, where most of the absentee buyers are likely investors buying rental property.

Vacation homes accounted for 10 percent of all U.S. homes sold last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. In comparison, investors bought 17 percent of homes sold last year.

The market share for vacation homes held steady despite "extraordinarily tight credit conditions" for buying such properties, the association's chief economist, Lawrence Yun, said in a spring report. A number of buyers paid cash for their homes. Even so, the buyer's median income of $99,100 was lower than in recent years.

"The fall in home prices has opened opportunities for more families to enter the second-home market," Yun said.

The California Association of Realtors estimates that vacation homes made up about 5 percent of all housing sales in the state last year.

Agents who sell second homes gave mixed views on the strength of the current market.

In Cloverdale, agents Jane and Ron Pavelka reported that five of their 17 sales this year were for second homes.

"I've never seen this many second-home buyers," said Jane Pavelka, who works in Healdsburg as part of Wine Country Group Realtors.

She also has never seen such a high rate of cash buyers — seven of the 17.

Many buyers, she said, first looked around Healdsburg and concluded "you can come up to Cloverdale and pay far less."

From many of the Cloverdale homes, she said, buyers can still reach the Healdsburg town square in roughly 15 minutes.

In Sonoma Valley, broker associate Cynthia Wood of Sotheby's International Realty said buyers are looking at second homes, but "I haven't had a mad rush."

Those out there appear reluctant to purchase, worried that prices might fall further, she said.

Wood and her husband Frank have operated Woodfield Properties for vacation rentals for more than 20 years. Some second-home buyers will make extra money by renting out their properties, and demand for vacation rentals remains good in the Sonoma Valley, she said.

Even so, she believes that more second-home owners in the valley aren't renting their properties.

Along the Russian River, the vacation region has been transformed over the past four decades, said Herman Hernandez, a broker with Frank Howard Allen in Guerneville.

In the 1970s, Guerneville filled each summer and became "a semi-ghost town" after Labor Day, Hernandez said. The vast majority of the fire department's calls came in the three summer months. But in the decades that followed, many of the old summer homes were renovated for year-round use.

Many vacation homes remain, said Hernandez, but today "we're a bedroom community of Santa Rosa. In the morning, you look at the commute. It's unbelievable."

This year he hasn't seen an increase in second-home sales, but the purchases that have occurred at least "helped the market keep moving along."

In years past at Bodega Bay, many home buyers were looking to retire at the coast. But Adams said not all the new owners found they liked the unpredictable weather, including the fog that turned the landscape gray on many summer days. Others consider the place too remote, lacking movie theaters, drug stores and other amenities they had grown accustomed to. And seniors who made frequent trips to doctors in Santa Rosa concluded "maybe this isn't the best place to get old."

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