Published March 20, 2008

Housing boom still alive in some places in US

There are exclusive, desirable pockets with scarce land and robust demand

(ROSS, California) Even in the worst storms, there are pockets of calm, and the housing crisis gripping the US is no different.

While prices are falling and owners are losing their homes to foreclosure around the country, places like Ross, a wealthy, woodsy town 28 km north of San Francisco, still enjoy robust demand.

That demand is explained by the town's sleepy feel - the 2,300 residents have to collect their own mail from the post office - and its exclusivity. Actor Sean Penn and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh live here.

'It's doing very well,' said real estate agent Tracy McLaughlin, whose offerings include a US$10 million estate. 'It's supply constrained. I can't think of one buildable lot in Ross.'

While Ross and surrounding Marin County may be a special case, a report last month by S&P/Case-Shiller showed that three metropolitan areas posted modest gains in home prices last year - Seattle; Portland, Oregon; and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Both Charlotte, a major financial centre, and Seattle, a high-tech hub, have low unemployment rates and all three are seen as desirable places to live.

But even in those three markets, average home prices declined in December from November, leading home owners and real estate agents to hope declines will be small.

Seattle's home prices may give up some gains - but not much, because 'they weren't as far out of kilter as in other places', said Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate.

Charlotte's home prices should hold much of their gains or only lose a bit of ground for the same reason, said real estate agent Mike Sposato of Carolina Realty Advisors.

'Maybe one year we had 10 to 12 per cent appreciation, but over the five-year period we had on average about 7 per cent,' he said.

Mark Jenkins and Linda Baker hope that Portland, like Seattle and Charlotte, holds relatively steady. They are looking to sell their home in Portland and buy a new one there.

'We are a little worried, but not terrified,' Baker said. 'We have been told by our broker that we have a good chance to sell at a reasonable price and in a reasonable amount of time.'

Similar sentiments hold in San Francisco, where real estate agents report that demand for homes still exceeds supply, especially for luxury properties, even though average prices fell there last year.

'There is a lot of wealth here . . . If they (buyers) want something better, they'll go for it,' Realtor Richard Weil said while showing a 10,000 square-foot home listed for sale at US$14.5 million in San Francisco's Presidio Heights neighbourhood.

Demand remains strong in San Francisco and nearby cities for less expensive homes, too.

Where home builders in many other markets have shelved blueprints, builders in the San Francisco Bay area's urban centres remain busy thanks to the region's wealth, scarce land for building and persistent demand.

'Would I like to sell more units at better prices in San Francisco, Oakland, Silicon Valley? Sure. But it's very insulated from what's going on in many places,' said Mike Ghielmetti, president of home builder Signature Properties.

By comparison, the median home price in Las Vegas, up at double-digit rates during the boom years, fell 5.6 per cent in January from December and 16.4 per cent from a year earlier, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

And the worst of the US housing slump is playing out just a two-hour drive east of the San Francisco Bay area in California's Central Valley, where affordable land, strong demand and easy credit fuelled a boom in construction.

As interest rates on adjustable-rate loans reset to higher levels, an increasing number of borrowers defaulted, sending foreclosures soaring. -- Reuters