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Real-Estate Crisis: A Tale Of North and South

The nationwide real-estate crisis caused by indiscriminate lending and a tidal wave of foreclosures has left the South Coast virtually unscathed, but the North County reeling.

Talk about a county split.

The nationwide real-estate crisis caused by indiscriminate lending and a tidal wave of foreclosures has left the South Coast virtually unscathed, but the North County reeling.

In fact, the difference between the two could hardly be more drastic.

“They really should be different counties at this point,” said Gary Woods, broker associate with the locally owned Home Realty and Investments Inc.

While the median home price in Santa Barbara has held steady at $1.25 million since February 2006, the median price in Santa Maria has plummeted by up to 17 percent, to $375,000 from around $450,000, said Mark Schniepp, principal of the California Economic Forecast.

“They are among the worst-hit areas in Southern California,” Schniepp said of Santa Maria. “There will be implications for a number of years there.”

The stark contrast reflects how the crisis has affected California. Wealthy areas where borrowers possess better credit did not feel much sting, but places desperate to fill empty houses in tract developments were burned.

To be sure, the South Coast did feel some effects. It witnessed about 20 foreclosures over the past year, and the home-loan office at Washington Mutual in downtown Santa Barbara laid off nine employees this week.

The South Coast also has experienced a recent slowdown in condominium sales, Woods said. For nearly two years, he said, sales hovered around 30 a month.

“It was like clockwork,” he said.

In September, though, the number dropped to 22, and hasn’t recovered, he said.

But in Santa Maria, the number of foreclosures is nearing 200, said Schniepp, and the Washington Mutual home-loan office there is closing down altogether. In Santa Maria, Schniepp continued, up to 40 percent of all the home loans over the past three years were given to subprime borrowers — meaning people with spotty credit history.

Meanwhile, the high-end markets of Montecito and Hope Ranch continue to soar.

“Actually, the prices there have risen about 5 percent,” Schniepp said, to about $3.2 million in Hope Ranch, and $2.7 million in Montecito.

In Montecito, however, at least one thing has changed: the general profile of the high-dollar homebuyer, Woods said. Whereas in the 1990s the enclave became home to many celebrities from Los Angeles, lately the influx of buyers seems to be coming from the Eastern states and abroad, he said.

“I don’t know why the celebrities don’t come here as much,” he said. “Maybe the new chic-est place is someplace else. Sylvester Stallone, I think, just moved down to Miami.”

One factor for the new buyers could be the low dollar, which seems to be luring people from abroad, said Will McGowan of RE/MAX Santa Barbara.

“People in England have bought property out here,” he said. “People from Germany as well."

Although McGowan couldn’t cite specific figures, he said that having any international real-estate sales at all constitutes an uptick.

“Usually real estate around here is pretty local,” he said. “The fact is, Santa Barbara is a little bit more known around the world now, because it is a little bit more affordable (for many foreigners).”

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