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Vashon's housing market sees a slight uptick

A few months ago, when Chris Ballew and Kate Endle found the home of their dreams on the western edge of the Island, they had to do something relatively unheard of in this lingering recession: Act fast.

Indeed, they faced a bidding war for the small, handcrafted home perched above Ober Beach, a place Ballew affectionately calls a “lumberjack’s music box.” Only later, after they’d bought the house, did they learn that there were several backup offers.

“I freaked out when I saw the listing,” recalled Ballew, aka Casper Babypants, a popular recording artist for kids. “We looked at it the next day and made an offer immediately. … We just love the house.”

Ballew and Endle’s experience was unusual; bidding wars are still rare. At the same time, their story is illustrative of something many agents say they’re seeing: The Vashon real estate market, after four years of sluggish sales and falling prices, is moving again.

Last year, by the end of August, 65 houses had sold. This year, as of Aug. 31, agents on Vashon had closed 90 deals, according to statistics supplied by Denise Katz, a Windermere agent. Currently, Katz said, 33 homes are in contract — suggesting the number of sales for 2012 will easily top those of the last four years, when agents closed around 100 transactions.

What’s more, the free fall in prices appears to be over, although agents are quick to note that it’s impossible to know for sure. Since the high of 2007, housing prices have tumbled a total of 42 percent on the Island. So far this year, there’s a tiny uptick: Prices are up, on average, 1 percent.

Last August, the median sale price on Vashon logged in at $296,000; this August, the median price was $360,000.

Jean Bosch, who with her sister Leslie Ferriel represented Ballew and Endle, said she’s had a couple of bidding wars this summer and seen several situations where there were multiple offers on a property. Several factors are at play, she said, including extremely low interest rates, savvier buyers and sellers and the pent-up demand that several years of slow sales has created.

“People are poised to make a purchase. They’re ready to buy,” Bosch said.

Crist Granum, another John L. Scott agent, concurred, noting that special properties are the first to go. “If you’ve got something rare or cute, the buyer will be there,” he said.

Beth de Groen, who owns the Windermere office in Vashon, said she predicts sales will be up 5 percent this year over last year. Many of the people who she and other agents are working with are first-time home buyers with young children, “really nice young people who I think will be here for the rest of their lives,” she said.

But it’s not just properties on the low-end of the price spectrum that are selling.

“We’re going to sell a lot of expensive waterfront houses that were on the market last year and didn’t sell,” de Groen said.

Emma Amiad, a buyer’s broker on Vashon, agreed, noting that if sellers set the price right, their house will sell quickly. “We’ve been seeing that in the 200, 300, 400, even 600,000-dollar range,” Amiad said. “It’s all based on whether or not they get that price right.”

The trends on Vashon mirror those throughout the region, where both the number of sales and the median prices are on the rise. In King County, the number of single-family homes that sold in August was 22 percent higher than that of a year ago, and the median price climbed 8 percent, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. King County’s robust summer has proved to be the busiest summer for home sales in five years, The Seattle Times reported last week.

But setting the price right can be a bitter pill for sellers, especially those who purchased a house between 2003 and 2007, when housing prices on Vashon were escalating at a rapid clip, or who refinanced during those flush years and took equity out of their home.

Ray and Kate Willey bought their house on the north end of Vashon for $359,000 in 2005, then refinanced it in 2009, pulling out $40,000 for a remodel, Kate said. Last year, the couple decided to move to Vermont — where a state-subsidized health care program would put an end to their escalating health care costs — and placed their house on the market for $319,000. It sat for two months without an offer, Kate said. The couple put it on the market again this spring, listing it for $299,000. It sold in six days.

The couple was glad to sell; their new home in Vermont — a spacious place on 11 acres — cost $180,000. It’s situated in a beautiful part of the state, she added, where her husband will be able to hunt and fish. Even so, she said, she feels sick about the price they ultimately had to accept on Vashon.

“We lost all our equity,” Kate said. “We almost gave it away.”

Amiad said she knows of similar situations, where couples bought at the top of the market and sold at a considerable loss. The situation will likely continue for some time, she said. Most real estate experts believe it will be years before people see their houses regain the value they lost over the last few years.

“We’re not going to catch up for a really long time,” she said.

Ballew, who is also a member of the rock band The Presidents of the United States of America, said he’s experienced the tumultuous housing market from both ends. He bought a house in 2006, only to see its value drop and find he couldn’t sell it. He now owns it as a rental. Ultimately, he said, he’s tried to follow what he called his “creative barometer, rather than the financial barometer.”

“The funny thing is, you can wait until the timing is perfect, but when life presents an opportunity, you sometimes have to act. For Kate and I, it was time to start enjoying the tone Vashon had to offer,” he said. “We needed that in our lives. Where the market was at was not a factor.”

 

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