Home Prices Continue to Set Records

Times Staff Writer

The once-frantic pace of home sales slowed in Southern California last month, but the median price rose to a record $409,000 as buyers continued to outnumber sellers, especially in the Inland Empire.

High-end homes saw the biggest sales decline when compared to September a year ago. Transactions in Orange County dropped 27.7% — the slowest September since 1996 — and Ventura County fell 18.5%, DataQuick Information Systems reported today. Both counties hit new median price peaks, however, at $533,000 and $540,000 respectively.

"The real estate cycle is playing itself out in predictable fashion," said Marshall Prentice, DataQuick president. "The home categories which first picked up steam six or seven years ago are now leveling off. Mid and entry-level markets, which kicked into gear a year or two ago, are still doing well."

Riverside County saw almost 3% more sales in September than it did a year ago as the median price — the point at which half sold for more, half for less — leaped 29.5% to $338,000. Sales in San Bernardino were up 1.3% as the median price took the biggest jump in the region, up 33.2% to $265,000.

Sales were down 7.8% in Los Angeles County, but the median price rose more than 21% to $407,000. San Diego County saw a 9.3% drop in homes sales with a similar 23.1% increase in the median price to $407,000.

In Southern California overall, sales were down 8.7%, while the median price climbed 22.1% to the $407,000 record.

The typical monthly mortgage payment that Southland buyers committed themselves to paying was $1,809 in September, up from $1,516 a year ago. The typical payment is still about 13% below the prior peak of $2,093 (adjusted for inflation) in April 1989.

Indicators of market distress such as a bubble are still largely absent, said DataQuick analyst John Karevoll. "Foreclosure rates are low, down payment sizes are stable and shifts in the market mix are minor," he said. "There are no signs of impending drastic changes in the market."

Slight recent increases in the number of homes being "flipped" through quick sales have leveled off, he said. Karevoll also predicted that the rate of increase in Southern California home prices would ease back to "the mid teens" by the end of the year.

Still, the inventory of homes for sale in the Inland Empire has grown in the past few months and a degree of sanity has been restored to the business, said Kevin Nicholson, an agent at San Clemente-based Pacificon Realty. "People are getting used to not seeing 10 offers on every house within 30 seconds" of hitting the market, he said.

Buyers are more relaxed these days because mortgage rates have continued to stay within reach in spite of rising interest rates, Nicholson said, and buyers are finding sellers more willing to negotiate repairs and other issues than they were a few months ago.

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