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Housing market strong here

Gary Roth, owner of contracting company The Roth Co., makes notes outside a large home project his company finished in 2002. Island builders did good business this year, putting up more homes than the year before - Matt Johnson / staff photo
Gary Roth, owner of contracting company The Roth Co., makes notes outside a large home project his company finished in 2002. Island builders did good business this year, putting up more homes than the year before
— image credit: Matt Johnson / staff photo

By MATT JOHNSON

Record editor

Bucking national media reports of a bad economy last year, island residents put their money where they live in 2002, one more indicator that the word “recession” is almost meaningless locally.

Retail sales were up during the first half of the year in most areas of Island County and there was still money left over for buying houses — something islanders did more often this year than in the past.

Both new and existing home sales in Island County and on Whidbey Island last year topped those the previous year, proving the area still has a strong housing market.

According to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, 995 home sales closed during 2002 on Whidbey Island, while 1,382 sales were made county wide. Both those numbers are up over the previous year: 989 home sales closed on Whidbey Island 2001 and 1,227 in the county.

Charlene Arnold, managing broker for Coldwell Banker/Tara Properties’ Freeland office, said Thursday a strong demand for investment properties fueled the market. Buyers purchased residential properties to use as rentals and to defer taxes in many cases, she said. Home purchases during the year were less about a need for housing.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of investment buyers,” Arnold said. “Whidbey Island has never been survival housing. It’s an island of hopes and dreams.”

Those hopes and dreams seemed to be strongest on South and Central Whidbey, where 679 residential sales represented a 14-percent increase over the previous year.

The prices for which these homes sold also seem to confirm Arnold’s assessment. Demand on South and Central Whidbey was high for homes priced at more than $200,000. According to MLS figures, 210 homes in this price range sold in 2002, up slightly from the 195 that sold the year before. More modestly priced homes, those under $200,000, also sold somewhat better, with 222 purchased — six more than in 2001.

Still, it was not quite a boom year. Barbara Mearing, the managing broker for Windermere Real Estate in Freeland, said the sales increase for Whidbey Island was less than 1 percent. For her company, this meant sales stayed about even with the previous year.

“We were just about neck-and-neck with 2001,” she said.

Real estate companies were not the only businesses with a stake in the housing market last year. Island builders put up more new homes than in the previous year.

All of the county’s cities saw more single-family homes being built last year than in 2001. Oak Harbor had the busiest building boom, with 131 homes going up in 2002 compared to the 83 the year before. In addition, said city building department staffer Kathy Gifford, 12 multiplex residences went up, far more than five built in 2001.

In Coupeville, where nine new homes buiilt in 2002 qualified as a moderate increase, building official Len Eserhut was modest about the town’s housing industry.

“It was pretty good,” he said.

In unincorporated Island County, builders put up 539 new homes, including 118 manufactured homes.

One of those homes, a sprawling, cedar shingled house with three accessory structures built by South Whidbey contractor Gary Roth, is in the upper price range for the island. Roth said that particular project, built on a shoreline lot on Mutiny Bay Road, gave him the highest volume of business he’s had in eight years of of working on Whidbey.

“We usually do about four to five projects a year, but this was like four projects in one,” he said.

Glen Crellin, the director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research, said Friday that Island County’s numbers are not out of line compared to the rest of the state. Residential property sales through the third quarter of 2002 show Washington to be on track for a 1.5 to 2-percent increase over 2001. New construction, he said, will probably be flat or down somewhat.

“We’re going to end up in a situation that’s around 100,000 sales, probably a little more,” Crellin said.

With regular reductions in mortgage rates and stocks losing value over the past year , Crellin said it is no surprise that homes are where Washingtonians are putting their money.

“The combination of alternative investments that have done absolutely nothing and interests rates that are the lowest in a generation make real estate an attractive investment,” he said.

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