Mudslide threat flattens home values

In the neighborhood atop Ocean View Boulevard in La Cañada Flintridge, concrete barriers line the curb, breaking only to allow access to residential driveways. Sandbags and other signs of the lingering threat of mudslides from hills made bare by the Station fire are everywhere.

And they're starting wear thin on some property owners and real estate agents.

"The south side of the street looks like a war zone," said Pat Anderson, who is rebuilding after her home was destroyed in the February 2010 mudslides. "Who is going to want to buy a house like that?"

Anderson, who is also president and chief executive of the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce, said more than three dozen homes in the neighborhood sustained damage from the February torrents. But the concrete barriers, known as K-rails, and sandbags aren't making recovery any easier.

Wes Seastrom, an agent with Dickson Podley Realtors, agreed that the neighborhood has a black eye.

"The K-rails don't make for an aesthetically pleasing impression," Seastrom said. "It puts in people's mind that there is a real problem there."

Michael Shaar, president of the Pasadena Foothills Assn. of Realtors, said he knows it is only a matter of time before vegetation growth restores the stability of the hillsides, but said home values today might be off by as much as 20%.

"I'm optimistic," Shaar said. "But in the short run, there is some suffering in the prices."

But other Realtors say larger forces are at play.

"The floods and the fires have had little impact," said Rosanna Rabottini of Re/Max Tri-City Realty in La Cañada, the agent for a home listed just below a debris basin on Big Briar Way. "People forget about disasters."

Rabottini noted the market bounced back after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, and said today's problem isn't loose soil, it's tight lenders who are not backing buyers despite billions in federal stimulus dollars.

"We went from an extreme of selling to unqualified people, and their dogs, to not selling to qualified buyers," Rabottini said.

Keith Sorem of Keller Williams in Glendale said La Cañada home prices are softening, but that the city is riding the same economy-driven currents as the rest of the region.

While La Cañada homes sold for an average of 98% of list price in November 2009, they slipped to only about 95.5% of list price last November, Sorem said.

In fact, the average sale price in La Cañada rose from $1.14 million in November 2009 to $1.24 million last November, according to Sorem's data. But the size of the homes on the market also grew, from 2,500 square feet to 3,000 square feet.

Sorem said buyers at the top of the hills are looking for solitude and access to nature. They see the associated risks — including high repair and remodeling costs because of strict building codes enacted in the wake of disasters — as a trade-off.

Anderson said she sees it that way, too, adding that she appreciated the quick excavation of debris basins after the December storms.

"We have to ride this out," Anderson said. "In time, the forest will rejuvenate itself, the K-rails will be removed, the streets and sidewalks will be repaired, and life will return to what we knew it to be prior to the mud flow incident."

According to Los Angeles County Public Works spokesman Mike Kaspar, that could be five to seven years, depending on what happens on the slopes.

"The Station fire was a very serious blow to that part of the county and we have to deal with the consequences," he said. "We understand people's concerns, but we're not in the real estate business. Safety is our primary concern."

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