TALK about putting on the Ritz.
Never mind that most of Mammoth Lakes' second-home market is crawling as slowly as a car in a blizzard. The luxurious, soon-to-be-built Ritz-Carlton Residences, Mammoth and the recently opened Westin Monache Mammoth condo-hotel have many in the resort community ready to haul out the finery and celebrate.
"The Ritz and Westin bring in a certain caliber of people who've never been here, and we're excited about that," said George Fowler, a Mammoth Lakes Coldwell Banker broker who has represented Westin condo buyers.
It's a small niche, but it packs a financial wallop. The Ritz's two- to four-bedroom, furnished attached units in 1,200 to 4,000 square feet will come with mud rooms, full kitchens, steam showers and walk-in closets. The development will have a pool, a spa, a library and a group living room, plus it's a short walk to the shops and restaurants at the Village at Mammoth. All for $1.7 million to $6.5 million.
The buyers -- not your typical Mammoth jeans-and-sweat-shirt crowd -- are putting down $10,000 refundable deposits on the homes. Construction is scheduled to start in May on the first 60 of 130 units, said Kathy Richardson, sales director for the development.
The Westin, which opened in November, offers upscale condos that buyers can rent out. The 230-unit complex -- 131 units went in just hours in an April 2005 pre-sale and the rest four months later -- last week had 18 condos for sale, from $419,000 for a studio to $1.25 million for two bedrooms, said Stephanie Cook, the broker at Mammoth Realty Group.
While new construction is banking on the resiliency of the wealthy, most of the mountain resort's buyers and sellers are experiencing a market that has tumbled, as has most of California, like a novice skier on a black-diamond run. In 2007, 278 condos sold, 22% fewer than the 358 in 2006, according to the Mammoth Lakes Multiple Listing Service. Single-family home sales also decreased to 42 in 2007 from 55 in 2006.
The mortgage meltdown has exacerbated the vacation-home slowdown. Owners tend to sell second homes before shedding their principal ones when the going gets rough financially, so resorts have more inventory than usual.
Despite the sales downturn, prices haven't entered the bargain realm. The median sales price for a Mammoth area house in 2007 was $900,000, according to the MLS data, compared with $895,000 in 2006. Condos sold for a median of $540,700 in 2007, only slightly off the $550,000 median in 2006.
Prices aside, one major concern of many would-be second-home buyers is the rental market for their properties. Here the news is mixed, depending on the rental term.
Long-term rentals (six months plus) are on the slide, said Bill Wagner, a Century 21 Mammoth Realty agent who specializes in such housing.
"This is the slowest year ever," Wagner said. "In winter, I never have an opening. Right now, I have two and am getting another the first of next week."
He attributes the slowdown to the state's economic turbulence.
On the brighter side, nightly rentals are up 40% from last year, said Kathie Tipton, owner of Mammoth Premiere Reservations. Occupancy "is running at least 95% every weekend and at 20% to 40% midweek."
She added that the snowpack -- at 12 feet in January, it was the fourth-greatest on record for that month -- bodes well for a strong ski season and demand for rentals through April.
Buyers, however, are stuck in a holding pattern, said broker Steve Schwind of Mammoth's Prestige Properties. "Some are waiting for the market to bottom out, some are waiting for a resolution of the nervous economy and some are waiting for the expanded-airport approval."
The proposal for Mammoth Yosemite Airport would transform a maintenance building into a commercial passenger terminal. Only private aircraft land there now.
Approval for Horizon Air to begin service to Mammoth Lakes -- two flights a day between LAX and the resort during the winter -- is awaiting a final environmental-impact statement, which is near completion. The decision could come this spring or summer, with potential commercial airline service up and running next winter, said Charles Cox, a technical specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration. If it goes through, visitors who don't love the 5 1/2 -hour drive from Los Angeles to the resort would be able to fly there in about 45 minutes from LAX.
"The airport could draw a big range of folks to Mammoth," Schwind said, "beyond the drivers' market from Southern California."
Meanwhile, sellers are hoping this season's deep snow and good attendance will spur residential sales.
Mammoth Realty Group agent Sue O'Brien recently represented a buyer who purchased an in-town two-bedroom, three-bath town house for $400,000. The original listing price in July was $485,000, which then dropped to $448,000.
"Motivated sellers are willing to negotiate prices," O'Brien said.
The lowest-priced condo currently available, a 1969 one-bedroom fixer in 700 square feet at the Sierra Manors development, is listed for $209,000.
The venerable 101-unit 1849 development, built in 1971 and within walking distance to a ski lift, has two-bedroom, two-bathroom units listing for an average of $525,000.
For those who love the shopping and other amenities the Village at Mammoth offers -- including the gondola ride to Canyon Lodge -- there are units available at three housing developments: Lincoln House, White Mountain Lodge and Grand Sierra Lodge. Buyers can find condos ranging from $429,000 for a 601-square-foot, one-bedroom unit at White Mountain Lodge to $1.5 million for a 1,425-square-foot, three-bedroom unit at Grand Sierra Lodge.
For "ski-in, ski-out" folks who want condos on the slopes, there's Juniper Springs, with more than 300 units.
"Juniper Springs is the mountain equivalent of 'beachfront property,' " Schwind said. "It's for skiers who want to be right in the action."
The development was built by Intrawest in 1996. There currently are 28 listings at the three main complexes. The average price of a condo is $773,275, for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit at Eagle Run.
Scott Meek, 56, a consulting engineer, and his wife, Julie Smith-Meek, 49, an aerospace worker, visit Mammoth year-round. They waited until last summer, traditionally the slowest time of the market there, and when the prices fell low enough, they bought a condo.
The couple, who are avid skiers and hikers, had rented over the years and jumped at the chance to buy a two-bedroom Snowcreek Resort home in 1,800 square feet in the $500,000 range, after years of spiraling prices kept them out of the market.
"It's still expensive in Mammoth," Meek said, "but prices have definitely dropped."
Snowcreek is a newer, 355-acre development with 755 units, located a couple miles from the village. The company launched its latest phase, CreekHouse, which offers 118 single-family homes, duplexes and tri- and four-plexes, in July. Currently, there are 23 homes for sale in the entire development, from $369,000 for a one-bedroom condo to $1.25 million for a four-bedroom home, said Julie Wright, a Snowcreek Property Co. broker in Mammoth Lakes.
Even pricier is a four-bedroom detached town home in 3,400 square feet for $2.5 million at Stonegate, a luxury development on the sixth fairway of Sierra Star Golf Course. It comes with a golf-course view and is a short jog from the Village.
"We're not trying to be Vail or Aspen," despite the new expensive housing, said broker Schwind. "Mammoth is a place where the fur folks and jeans crowd all come together."