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Home buyers stirring in some markets

Hardest-hit housing markets, such as in California, are seeing strong signs of activity.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 2008

First-time buyer: Tumbling prices in central California have brought homes within reach of new buyers like Christine Amy. A single mother of five, Ms. Amy has always been a renter but now plans to buy this two-story, four-bedroom house in Lathrop, Calif.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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Lathrop, Calif.

The housing market in California's Central Valley – and in other sharply deflated markets in parts of California, Nevada, Florida, and Arizona – is showing signs of new life.

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Prices have fallen so far that people of average salaries can afford to own homes again. Buyers are out in force.

Here in Lathrop, Calif., and in nearby Stockton – the nation's foreclosure capital – home prices could be bottoming out. However, real estate agents remain wary given the number of vacant homes and expectations of more to be listed early next year.

"The buyers are returning. And in such a strong way that, now, we are hearing in some cases there is multiple bidding, which hints that maybe pricing is reaching a bottom point," says Lawrence Yun, chief economist with the National Association of Realtors (NAR). "But inventory remains high. There is a lot of conflicting information."

Stockton had to give back much of the housing bubble's price gains before buyers returned. In regions where prices haven't fallen so dramatically, sales remain slow, says Mr. Yun. Those areas may face the heavier downward pressure on prices going forward.

Whether real estate prices plunge further may also depend on how forcefully the next wave of foreclosures hits.

Already, banks have delayed foreclosures, hoping the new Obama administration will offer aid or work out programs that would benefit bankers' bottom line.

If it doesn't, a wave of new bank-owned listings could overwhelm the real estate market and send it tumbling again.

For now, it seems to be stabilizing here. Since April, monthly sales activity has grown over the previous year in San Joaquin County, according to DataQuick. Sales in September and October were at levels not seen since 2005 – near the height of the bubble frenzy.

New buyers are primarily first-timers and investors. A recent NAR survey found 20 percent of buyers are investors, but Stockton-area real estate agents put the investor share at one-third or more.

Some renters buy their first house

One first-time buyer, Christine Amy, has an offer accepted on a bank-owned home in Lathrop, a town in California's San Joaquin County.

"I'm a single parent with a bunch of kids, working part time going to school, and I'm just, like, there's no way [I could buy a home]. And 12 months ago, there wouldn't have been any way, even though I had three jobs at the time. The market was just too high," says Ms. Amy.

For $166,000, she was able to get a two-story, four-bedroom home in decent shape. Many foreclosed homes Amy looked at were "just completely thrashed." With most of the homes she did like, she lost out to other bidders. Some investors are able to undercut competition by simply offering cash.

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