Ventura County's housing market continued its steady march upward in 2002 as year-end figures indicate record prices and the highest sales volume in 14 years.
"Home sales are off the chart," economist Mark Schniepp of California Economic Forecast said.
"That's absolutely no surprise. We've been tracking [sales] every month, and we knew that we were going to have a record year," he said.
But Peter Greer of Thousand Oaks, a board member of the California Assn. of Realtors, said those who sell homes in the county were not as confident last year that the phenomenal sales of 2001 could be surpassed.
"We did not expect it  to be as big as it was," said Greer, president of the Conejo Valley Assn. of Realtors.
"People ... enjoy living in our county. As long as we have the good schools and low crime, people will continue to come, and we'll keep our [home] values up," he said.
The sales of new and resale houses and condominiums increased 8.2% -- to 17,775 -- in 2002, while the median price of a typical Ventura County home jumped 16.8% -- to $325,000 -- for the year, according to the latest figures released by DataQuick Information Systems.
Last month the number of local homes sold increased 6.5% -- to 1,449 -- while the December median home price reached a record $348,000, up nearly 14.5% compared with the last month of 2001.
"The sales counts will probably stay strong for a while, because there's an awful lot of demand relative to supply -- there's still more buyers than sellers," DataQuick analyst John Karevoll said.
All indicators suggest the strength of the local market is solid, Karevoll said, adding that -- unlike the stock market in recent years -- the run-up in home values has not created a bubble that will soon burst and send prices tumbling.
"The bubble ain't breaking," Karevoll said. "We're still moving forward; we're still climbing."
How long prices continue to rise depends on several factors, but the overall forecast is good, experts say.
"Will it be as big again this year? It's impossible to predict, but I think we'll have a very positive year," said Greer, whose Conejo Valley group sells property in Thousand Oaks, Oak Park, Westlake Village and Agoura Hills. "Values will continue to rise, maybe by 10% to 15%."
Karevoll suggests median housing prices will grow a more modest 8% to 10% and that even if interest rates edge up to 6.5% or 7% this year, that still would not be enough to curb higher sales.
"There are a lot of ifs out there: If the nation goes to war there may be some deferred sales activity, but the fundamentals would remain the same," Karevoll said.
"When the conflict is over, the market would just play catch-up for a few months."
Among factors fueling local sales, according to Schniepp, is pent-up demand stemming from a substantial number of local jobs created in 2000 and 2001 and a growing "invasion by Santa Barbara workers to find affordable housing" in Ventura County.
The economist conducted a survey last summer that showed the number of workers in southern Santa Barbara County -- where the median home price was $744,000 in 2002 -- who live in Ventura County had grown to nearly 17,000 people, or about 16% of the work force.
The percentage of workers who made a similar commute in the early 1990s was closer to 4%, Schniepp said.
These experts warn that higher home prices will further push local housing out of the reach of young professionals and workers of modest incomes.
"Think of all the employees to be hired at firms as the recovery is more firmly underway," Schniepp said. "Where will these people live? It will have a significant impact on the local economy."
Kay Wilson-Bolton, who operates Century 21 offices in Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ojai, said a consequence of relentless price escalation is that more households must earn two incomes to cover the mortgage payment.
To illustrate the rapid rise in prices, she cited a condominium complex in Ventura where a unit sold for $178,000 two months ago and a remodeled unit just came on the market at $219,000.
"And it won't be on the market long," Wilson-Bolton said.
"I wonder where's it going to stop and who's it going to impact most," she said.
"How high can it go? And when it gets to the top, does it burst or just slide back down?"
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County: Los Angeles
Total sold: 121,196
Median price: $262,000
County: Orange County
Total sold: 51,879
Median price: $354,000
County: San Diego
Total sold: 54,930
Median price: $323,000
Total sold: 52,768
Median price: $210,000
County: San Bernardino
Total sold: 41,031
Median price: $161,000
Total sold: 17,775
Median price: $325,000
Total sold: 339,579
Median price: $269,000
Figures are 2002.
Source: DataQuick Information Systems