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Buyers, sellers get in on an improving housing market

By NATALIE MARTIN

After years of sluggish sales and falling prices, Vashon’s real estate market is firmly on the upswing, with an 18 percent jump in home prices in 2013.

Last year the median price of a single-family home sold on Vashon hit $413,500, its highest in five years, according to data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS). Last year there were also slightly more sales on the island, as 157 homes changed hands, up from 146 the year before and nearly double the low of 83 sales in 2008.

“It’s huge,” said Beth de Groen, who owns the Windermere office on Vashon, noting that a normal market increase is about 5 percent a year.

Between 2007, the height of the market, and 2011, the median sale price on Vashon plummeted 42 percent, losing 24 percent in 2009 alone, according to NWMLS data. In 2012 the market began to turn around with a 4 percent increase on Vashon.

While homes are finally starting to regain value, fewer short sales and foreclosures in 2013 also contributed to the 18-percent spike, local real estate agents say, as did a slight resurgence in the market for higher-end houses.

“We’re actually seeing it become a healthier market, healthier than it’s been,” de Groen said, “and people realize there’s an uptick.”

Indeed the increase, which is expected to continue, is bringing out buyers hoping to get in while prices are still somewhat low — the median price of a home sold in the height of the market in 2007 was $535,000. Low interest rates of around 4.5 percent are also currently a big draw.

Denise Katz, a real estate agent with Windermere, said that while Vashon hasn’t seen the feeding frenzy that’s happened in some parts of Seattle as the market recovers there, homes on Vashon that are well-maintained, reasonably priced and presented well are generating immediate interest, selling fast and sometimes garnering multiple offers.

“A lot of people who were on the fence are buying now,” Katz said. “Interest rates are low, and homes are starting to appreciate, not depreciate.”

Colleen Brooks, a retired woman who recently moved to Vashon from Oregon, said she decided to buy last fall both because she knew it was a good time to buy a home and because she wanted to be closer to family in Tacoma.

When she fell in love with a well-built, three-bedroom home within walking distance of town, she had to jump on it, she said, as several other buyers were interested. She sped through the loan process, secured a good interest rate and offered the full asking price, she said, which was slightly over what the home had been appraised at.

“Otherwise I could have lost it very easily,” she said.

The only downside to the housing upswing, agents say, is that there is currently not enough selection on Vashon to meet the growing demand from both island and Seattle-area buyers looking to move, and some are taking months  to find a place.

Emma Amiad, a buyer’s broker on Vashon, said many of her clients have struggled with the low inventory on Vashon, especially those with specific types of homes in mind — such as a waterfront property or a house on the north end — or those looking in a limited price range.

“If you’re a first-time home buyer and wanting to spend under $300,000, you’re not going to find much,” Amiad said.

Patty Hieb and Hooper Havekotte, who moved to Vashon from Seattle last year, were surprised with the limited choices on the island, Hieb said, and ultimately it took them 10 months to find a place.

After selling their home in Magnolia in a bidding war, Hieb, who had quit her job, and Havekotte, who was retired, came to Vashon last January seeking a change of pace. However, working with Amiad, the couple quickly realized the options in their price range, $300,000 to $400,000, were so limited that for months they looked at almost no homes.

“We were so desperate to look at something; we were getting so discouraged,” she said.

The two found an island home to rent and decided to take their time.

“Coming here was a wake-up call. … We had to slow it down, get in that groove,” Hieb said. “It’s just a different perspective being in the country and all that.”

Eventually the couple found a modest home they liked in Dockton. It was originally out of their price range but dropped suddenly by $50,000, Hieb said, and they quickly made an offer.

“If that one hadn’t come along, we would probably be waiting till next spring again,” she said.

Michelle Reed had a similar experience when she moved from Port Orchard to Vashon last year. A co-owner of Core Centric Fitness, Reed had been commuting to Vashon and wanted to move to the island with her husband and young child. However, it took them about a year to find a home that would be affordable for them — one other purchase fell through in the process — and they had to give up on some of the things they originally wanted in a house, Reed said. They eventually went with a two-bedroom home with a small yard near town.

“Buying the house that wasn’t all the stuff on our wish list was still a better option than renting,” she said. “With the rental rate versus the mortgage rate, we would have been paying more for rent and not getting any of the perks of owning, like building equity.”

Ken Zaglin, who owns the local John L. Scott branch, said his office has also seen some buyers struggle with limited options, but he’s hopeful about this spring, which is typically when many people put homes on the market.

“It really awaits to see the volume of listings we get this spring,” he said. “We’ll see people returning to the market given that they’re no longer having to look at a value below what they paid for. … I think we’re going to get a return to a sane market.”

Zaglin noted that after years of working with people who had lost jobs, lost their life saving or were going through foreclosures, it’s nice to return to a climate where clients are “at least breaking even,” he said.

“It’s a really nice place to be in a recovering market,” he said.

As for Amiad, she said she’s spreading the message that now is the time to buy, but it’s also the time to sell.

“If people are waiting for the rhodies to bloom, don’t do that. Get out there now,” she said. “You have a lot of ready and able and willing buyers.”

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