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Costly South Whidbey homes attract wealthy

"To live on Whidbey Island, you don’t have to pay a lot -- at least compared to Seattle.But you can, and many people are. During the past year, more home buyers than ever have been willing to pay a half-million dollars or more for their pieces of the island. Obviously, these are no ordinary pieces. According to Windermere Real Estate’s Helga Johnson, people with money are just now discovering South Whidbey as an escape from city life that is still close to Seattle.“There’s a lot of people with money who want a getaway nearby,” Johnson said.This year, Johnson said, South Whidbey real estate agents have sold 25 homes valued at more than $495,000. Last year, real estate agents sold 15 homes in that price bracket.These numbers speak volumes about a real estate market that seems to be changing rapidly. Of the 453 residential properties sold on the Southend this year, 5.5 percent were in this high price range. The pace of these big-ticket sales is so brisk that Coldwell Banker even has a special team of agents who handle these sales.Todd Bitts, one member of the three-person team, said Coldwell Banker goes all out to sell what the company terms “premier” properties. That effort can include national and international advertising, slick brochures, and a tag-team approach to selling. It’s all worth it for the selling and listing agents. Charging even a modest percentage for a fee can bring an agent thousands of dollars in commission. That could be an entire year’s pay for some agents, said Helga Johnson, though big sales are hardly reliable for all home sellers.Johnson, Bitts and other agents do not put all their eggs in the high-priced home basket, even though there is a temptation to do so. Bitts said it is not unusual for him and other agents to list a $1 million home the same week they list a $54,000 home. That, he said, describes the island market these days.“It’s either very high or very low,” he said.Gary Piper of Piper Properties said the high-priced home market is having almost a slowing effect on growth. During the past couple of years, he said he has found himself selling people multiple parcels for the sole purpose of creating estates. That takes some buildable lots out of the development cycle.“People want bigger so they can have seclusion,” Piper said.Bigger and better, even for raw land, means a considerably higher price. Mariellen Tissot, another member of the Coldwell Premier team, said one 10-acre piece of land sold by her company in the Useless Bay area this year went for more than $1 million. Waterfront property is especially popular in spite of the steep price, said Piper, because unlike in the Seattle area, it is actually available and plentiful. In fact, he sees waterfront as the Southend’s biggest draw.“Very few people look at the west side of Whidbey Island and say ‘I don’t like it.’”Piper, Bitts, Tissot, and Johnson agree that the majority of big-ticket home buyers coming to South Whidbey are from the Northwest. And at best, most of them are only part-time residents once they move here -- no matter how large or expensive the home.For example, this year the Coldwell team sold Freeland’s Northlight Ranch for $2.95 million. That is the highest price ever paid for a single residential property on Whidbey Island. But, said Bitts, the property’s new owner uses it as a second home.“The ones I can think of, without exception, are second homes,” Bitts said.The agents also agree that there will be more and more high-priced residential real estate on the market in future years, since more people are building estate-quality homes on large acreage. Even so, islanders with more modest incomes should not fear that they will run out of affordable places to live. Gary Piper said the number of moderately-priced homes is increasing every year.“There are still many buildable lots,” he said."

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