Hundreds of vacant lots placed on the market 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 be be 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.