Rick Laws and Jeff Schween quoted in Press Democrat
March 18, 2018
Hundreds of vacant lots placed on the market in Sonoma County after October wildfires
The cul-de-sac above the first green of the Fountaingrove golf club has become a land of broken dreams.
At the southern tip of Deauville Place, near a meadow where the new grass shimmers green, five adjacent lots have been offered for sale. Each one has been cleared of debris after the homes there burned in the October wildfires.
In that same three-street subdivision off Fir Ridge Drive, property owners are selling 16 of the available 43 home sites. Only a few still have houses standing.
“That little enclave took a beating,” said Ron Larson, a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa. “A lot of people decided not to rebuild.”
In the past four months, Sonoma County fire survivors have offered about 300 burned lots for sale. That amounts to nearly 6 percent of the 5,200 home sites that burned in Sonoma County during the wildfires.
Since the start of the year, 25 new lots a week have been put up for sale, a pace that equates to 1,300 a year. While no one knows how long that will continue, real estate agents and brokers expect that hundreds more lots will enter the market this year.
“We’re only at the tip of the iceberg,” said Rick Laws, senior vice president for Pacific Union International in Santa Rosa.
Thus far, the sellers largely have been retired residents who balk at spending the time and energy needed to rebuild their former homes, said Laws, who produces The Press Democrat’s monthly housing report. But a new wave of sellers is coming, namely the owners who find themselves underinsured and unable to afford replacing their homes.
Laws, working with Glen Ellen-based real estate analytics group Terradatum, reported that nearly 100 lots had been sold by the end of February. Almost all were located in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove and Coffey Park neighborhoods.
In a review of sales from mid-December, Laws found the median selling price for the lots was $232,000. Another 160 lots have pending sales agreements, not all of which will result in completed purchases.
The results aren’t an exact count because the multiple listing service doesn’t distinguish the burned lots from other parcels for sale. Laws and Terradatum arrived at their numbers by overlaying maps of the destruction with those for ZIP codes.
Roughly 60 different buyers have purchased burned parcels from November through late February. Six builders and investors have accounted for more than a third of the acquisitions.
The builder purchases were led by three Santa Rosa firms. APM Homes Rebuild bought 11 lots in Coffey Park. Christopherson Builders purchased four lots in east Santa Rosa and Gallaher Homes bought three in Coffey Park.
Among investors, Palm JR, a Modesto limited liability company, bought 10 lots, followed by Treewell Investments of Santa Rosa and a Pacifica woman, Sabine Bravo, who purchased five each.
The October wildfires became the most devastating in state history. They claimed 40 lives and burned 6,000 homes in the region. The resulting home insurance claims exceeded $9 billion.
The disaster’s impact has yet to be fully grasped. Key questions now include how many fire survivors will rebuild their houses and how many new homes will arise soon in a county that was suffering a housing shortage before the fires.
To address that shortage, county officials recently proposed building 30,000 more homes in the next five years — a pace of construction seven times greater than the number of local home starts over the past five years.
However, members of the building and real estate sectors have said the region lacks the capacity for such a dramatic surge in residential construction. Many predicted the fire recovery alone will take five to 10 years to complete.
While it remains a matter of debate, agents generally expect at least 1,000 owners will eventually sell their lots. Some suggested the count could be much higher.
“There are a lot of people still on the bubble” regarding whether to rebuild or sell, said Mark Spaulding, a Pacific Union agent in Santa Rosa. In the coming months, he said, the number of lots on the market is more likely to increase than to decline.
Among those owners choosing to leave is James Mona. He and his wife, whose first name also happens to be Mona, lost their Fountaingrove home on Bent Tree Place.
“I’m 79 years of age, and I’m No. 50 on a list for a builder,” said Mona, who retired here more than two decades ago after a career in the accounting department at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. He said he consulted two builders and learned they would need four to six years to rebuild his home.
“We were seriously looking to stay” and considered more than 35 local properties for purchase, said Mona, who recently published a letter to the editor in The Press Democrat telling of the “greed” he encountered after losing his home. The home prices were “kind of ridiculous,” he said, including fixer-uppers going for $800,000.
In the end, the couple bought a home in Redding that sits on a golf course and has its own swimming pool. They plan to move there this month.
To date most lot buyers have been builders and investors paying all cash. But the ranks also include individuals looking for homesites for themselves or their children.
In Coffey Park, a place of flat, tract subdivisions built over a quarter century ago, many of the available lots are priced between $180,000 and $220,000. The value depends mostly on the lot’s size and location in relation to busy streets.
In recent weeks, competition for the Coffey Park lots drove the prices higher.
“It seemed like there was just a frenzy of builders trying to purchase these lots,” said Monica Nowak, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.
In the hillside Fountaingrove neighborhood, lot prices typically range from $250,000 to more than $500,000. There the value becomes a more complicated calculation that includes the lot’s size, usable yard space and available views. A key factor involves whether the homesite sits on level ground or the slope of a hill.
“Building on the side of a mountain is expensive,” said Spaulding.
The foundations on hillsides not only can require considerably more concrete and steel reinforcements, but builders also can expect to pay more for the needed studies from geologists and engineers.
As a result, many lots with slopes are finding few takers, agents said.
Many Fountaingrove lot sales also may be slowed by concerns about benzene contamination in the drinking water pipes in parts of the neighborhood. The discovery has prompted a “do not drink” advisory for an extensive area that includes Deauville Place and the adjacent streets with multiple lots for sale. Agents said builders and investors have expressed reluctance to buy lots in the advisory area until the city pinpoints the source of the contamination and fixes the problem.
As more lots come to market, many will be watching to see whether more buyers step forward. Some agents foresee the possibility of price reductions in Fountaingrove, an area where the number of so-called “spec builders” of custom homes may be limited.
“The early sellers of lots are going to get the premium,” said Jeff Schween, an agent with Pacific Union in Santa Rosa. Those who come later to market may conclude, “There’s no one left to buy my lot, at least not at this price.”
Among the lot buyers Schween is working with are two builders, one from Sacramento and the other from New York.
Ken Dyer of Sacramento-based Dyer Construction said he is seeking 10 to 15 properties and hopes to break ground on his first spec home in about five weeks. It should be completed in a year or less.
“A new breed of home is going to be built in Fountaingrove,” Dyer said. The new homes will be more of a custom nature than the plans for the “production-minded” subdivisions that first arose there more than two decades ago.
The upgraded houses also will be more costly. Dyer noted that one of his lots previously had contained a home worth about $1.2 million before the fires. When the new home is completed there, it likely will sell for $1.8 million or more, he said, even though his rate of profit won’t be any greater than for the homes he builds in Sacramento.
Similarly, agents said a Coffey Park home that previously had sold for $580,000 likely would be replaced with a house selling for $650,000 to $700,000.
The higher prices are one result of the effort to reclaim the burned neighborhoods spread across northern Santa Rosa, builders and others said. But some acknowledged that homes here could wind up being even less affordable in a county where only a quarter of households now have the means to purchase a median-priced house of $670,000.
Many future homebuyers here may come from out of the area, especially from other parts of the Bay Area with even higher housing prices.
“It will change the demographics of Sonoma County,” said Laws.
Among the newcomers to the county is New York builder Ron Ferraro. Formerly of Long Island, Ferraro, 36, this year moved his company, Sunset Developers, to Santa Rosa, along with 40 construction workers for whom he is providing housing.
Ferraro said he is purchasing 10 lots and plans to use a total crew approaching 60 to build homes in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove. Many of the first homes will serve as models to show fire survivors the quality of his workmanship.
“It’s a big jump to move from one state to the other,” Ferraro acknowledged. But he said he “set my eyes on this place before the fires,” and he sees an opportunity to put down roots here and grow his business.