Factual versus Actual: The Bay Area Real Estate Tide floats Sonoma County’s Real Estate Boat

filed under: Buyers, Market updates, Sellers posted on October 9th, 2007

Have you ever visited the US Army San Francisco Bay Model? It is really great to see when the model is running and you can view the really complex tidal patterns that circulate through San Francisco Bay–I had the chance once when I attended a sailboat racing lecture there–tides being really critical to your success racing on SF Bay. With Homescopes, I hope that we can use our informal network of agents on the ground, to help us as a region get a feel for the ebbs and flows of our inter-related Northern California marketplaces.

Many of us in the real estate market in the North Bay are fairly convinced that our market in Sonoma and Napa is very influenced by the strengths and variations of the Bay Area real estate market whether in terms of general trends (Hot, Cold or Indifferent) as well as localized effects such as the tides of Palo Alto and the Peninsula, San Francisco and the East Bay Insterstate 80 corridor. I spoke to my friend Izetta Feeny yesterday, a long time Coldwell Banker agent in Sonoma County and shared with her the 3 Ocean’s Real Estate recent post about rapid median price apprection in Palo Alto and other selected markets in the Bay Area.

“Oh! That’s good,” she said, “That means we’ll see the effect up here in 18 months.” As if the rising tide of the heart of the Bay Area’s market would eventually ripple north to Sonoma and Napa counties and lift our boat. When our boat is eventually lifted by the Bay Area high tide, we attract at least 2 types of buyers from out of town: entry level buyers who can’t afford to live where they work in Marin or San Francisco, and upper-tier buyers with equity in strong, competitive Bay markets that want a lifestyle change and move here full time, or who are looking for a weekend getaway or wine country estate. As the most desireable markets in the Bay Area are strong, then we see a more immediate impact on the markets that will serve the budding country squire (and squire-ess). Virtually all the buyers I have worked with this year fall into this category of new “lifestyle” immigrants to the wine country.

As you view the upper quartile median price points for many of Sonoma County’s cities (well, towns), the cities with the most cachet for out of town buyers: Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Glen Ellen, Kenwood and Sonoma, all have much higher upper quartile price points. Counter-intuitively, there are wide fluctuations in the upper quartile of some of our markets (Kenwood and Glen Ellen, Healdsburg) but that is because upper quartile price ranges are much broader, and with the small sample size of these areas, are subject to wider swings when a large vineyard estate sells for $4 to $6 million or so one month but not the next.

The greater majority of our upper tier markets hover in the $1M to $2M range, with increasing forays into the $2M range.

There are different tidal patterns and forces pulling these buyers to the North Bay. So a typical Palo Alto homeowner who wants to stop and smell the roses (or the grapes) can trade in their little rancher ($2 to $2.4 million) near Hamilton or Emerson and live like the landed gentry up here with 2 to 10 acres of privacy, views or room for horses or farming. Or a stunning retreat property for weekends and holidays. This Sonoma County potential buyer has been pretty immune to the ups and downs of the general market and the subprime lending crisis. They keep the upper and sometimes the 2nd quartile markets steady and strong. Which is why we see well-priced and presented country properties moving quickly (i.e within a month or two) while many many single family tract homes and condominiums in suburban locations in Petaluma, NW Santa Rosa and Windsor are languishing. The lower quartiles are currently more impacted by the uncertainties in the mortgage markets, plus the hordes of amateur investors are back in the stock market and not investing in real estate.

These are the types of homes (typically the bottom one or two quartiles) that will be snatched up by Bay Area renters and workers who will commute to their jobs from the North Bay. Yesterday I showed one of my listings to a young, first time buyer and his agent from San Rafael. He is on the hunt because he perceives value in the lower quartile of our market, and rates are down, affordability is up. So the currents ebb and flow.

These buyers have been staying away but seem to be cautiously returning. The Palo Alto potential country squires never really left. Many of the smartest buyers know that now is a good time to buy, with low rates and lots of choice. The real illusion that some buyers hold is that they can somehow divine the low point of the tide and time their entry into the water. That is even harder to do with real estate than the stock market. Just take a look at the San Francisco Bay model to see how complex these currents can be.

posted by Pam Buda // 3 Comments »