Life after fire: competition for Santa Rosa housing is fierce

The SoCal wildfires are a graphic reminder of what the North Bay suffered earlier. Now business is brisker than ever.
  • In the wake of the North Bay fires, Sonoma County's Santa Rosa market is enjoying a "spring season" in December.

Wildfires have turned Southern California upside down this week. Hundreds of thousands of people were placed under evacuation, multimillion-dollar homes were damaged and destroyed, celebrities were among the many people forced to flee, and President Trump just approved a disaster declaration for the state.

But things aren’t finished yet: The latest fire to start in the last 24 hours was the Lilac fire in San Diego. And numbers released today by real estate data firm CoreLogic put 86,000 homes at risk.

For those who went through similar heartache in California’s North Bay in October, the graphic media coverage this week has been an unwelcome reminder.

“With fire breaking out in SoCal and L.A., it shows we don’t want to get too complacent. It reminds us how it just starts out of nothing especially with this new fire. It’s very unsettling, “said Mary Miller, an agent with Nexthome Wine Country Premier in Santa Rosa.

“Once the wind went up here, people started being very nervous,” she added.

Miller believes the Santa Rosa market has been markedly changed by the wildfires which claimed over 5,000 homes in mid-October. People are having to look at properties that they never would have considered before, she said.

Yasmeen Hillyard, an agent with Re/Max Pros, reported buyers were open to looking at adjacent markets including Petaluma and Rohnert Park, especially those looking for a quick solution.

In her market from first homebuyers upwards, the rental market has skyrocketed so people are preferring to buy, she said.

“The fires really started a big change – there was a big ripple effect,” she said. “Anything under $700,000 is moving very quickly whether it’s a fixer or a condo, everything is moving.”

Hillyard just listed a remodeled three bedroom, two bath home in a planned unit development three days ago and it has already gone into contract after attracting multiple offers within a day of coming to market.

Santa Rosa agents all agree, they have never been so busy in December. The loss of 20 percent of the town’s homes has unleashed a plethora of homebuyers on the market who have decided to take their insurance money and buy rather than rebuild.

As Artisan Sotheby International Realty broker, Doug Swanson puts it: “December 15, normally the market drops off a cliff. This is the  strongest ‘spring market’ we’ve ever seen seen and it’ll go through Christmas.”

The real estate market where the epicenter of the Santa Rosa fires was is where the biggest bump up of prices has happened, he said.

Swanson has had some personal experience of this himself. The broker, who lost his house in the city’s Fountaingrove fire and $200,000 in commission from homes in escrow, wrote an offer on a property soon after the fire in his kids’ school district. But his offer of $750,000 was trumped by a competing offer of $940,000.

Unfortunately for local buyers, in this low inventory market they are competing with investors attracted by the highly-inflated rents insurance companies are paying, so Swanson is fighting off this kind of distraction on his listings as well.

He cited one $3.9 million wine property where the owner was offered a $35,000 monthly rent for the next two years by AIG.

His client decided against it because he thought the market might have changed for the worse in two years’ time so he wanted to sell now, Swanson said.

The Santa Rosa broker is expecting more buyers to come to the market as they do the math on their insurance policies and some decide it’ll be less of a headache to buy a home than wait for a construction company to do a rebuild.

A message of hope to those in SoCal from Miller, meanwhile, from the North Bay. “The community rebounds together, the closeness is remarkable. If this teaches people to be more aware of who lives near them, then that’s a good thing,” she said.

Email Gill South.