Home speculation seems to cool as buyers wait

There are signs that buyers are finally applying the brakes to real-estate speculation in Orange County.

''We all voted for President Reagan here because he said he'd cut inflation, and he's doing it,'' says Newport Beach real-estate broker Jim Wood. The cooling of inflation has led to price resistance - and is removing speculators from the housing market, he says.

Not only are asking prices falling, Mr. Wood argues, but in some cases people who have bought in the last few years are selling houses for less than they paid for them.

He cites a couple who bought a three-bedroom condominium in a ''guarded-gate community'' for $325,000 two and a half years ago. When they needed to sell it to accept a new job on the East Coast, they decided to ask $360,000, to get back what they put into it, plus selling costs. But when someone made them a cash offer, they ended up accepting less than what they paid for it.

''Now people are buying shelter - very comfortable shelter, in the case of Newport Beach, but still just shelter.''

''A certain realism needs to be injected into the market,'' Mr. Wood argues. The high cost of housing in Orange County includes not just the base price of a house, but high interest rates, taxes, and homeowners' dues. ''Sellers have got to look at what buyers are willing to pay.''

But James L. Doti, of the Center for Economic Research at Chapman College here, sees it differently. He feels the much-anticipated slide in real estate prices may turn out to be a non-event.

He anticipates housing prices will rise only 5.7 percent in 1982. This, against 6 or 6.5 percent inflation, means a decline in real terms. But not by much.

His reason for assuming prices will ''fall'' no more than that? Brace yourselves for this one: He says they aren't that high in the first place.

Come again?

''Housing payments as a percentage of income rose from 13.8 percent in 1965 to 45.4 percent now - which is incredible,'' he acknowledges. But making certain ''reasonable assumptions'' about homeowners' tax breaks and inflation, he demonstrates how average real after-tax payment as a percentage of income over the life of a mortgage has gone only from 9.6 percent to 14.6 percent. He calculates a 10 percent annual increase in a family's income, which suggests less confidence in the Reagan administration's inflation-fighting ability than Mr. Wood has. He also calculates from the basis of a long-term, fixed-rate mortgage.

Mr. Doti suggests the affordability problem for housing should be met with greater use of an instrument coming into vogue around the country: graduated-payment mortgages.

Meanwhile, in the great scheme of things, real estate prices would seem not to affect Orange County living costs so disastrously as might be imagined. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics put the cost of living in the Los Angeles-Orange County area in 1981 at only 8 percent above national averages for lower-budget life styles. Higher rents and transportation costs were responsible for most of the difference. The cost of living for intermediate and upper-income life styles was found to be very close to national averages.

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