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Saturday, Feb 16 2013 05:00 PM

Home buyers seemingly unspooked by possible freeway

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Realtor Andy Lagasse, from Watson Realty, is offering his services to Westpark residents looking to find out the values of their homes.

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BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

Here's a recent listing for a home in Westpark on La Mirada Drive: Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a swimming pool out back. Modern decor, a fireplace and jacuzzi bathtub in one bathroom, according to the photos. List price: $234,900.

Perhaps a little high for a house that could be within three lots of the Centennial Corridor freeway? That's if the California Department of Transportation's preferred route for the project, Alternative B, is built.

The freeway would be the largest of the Thomas Roads Improvement Program projects to expand Bakersfield's roads and could take down hundreds of homes in and around Westpark.

But according to local real estate professionals, that possibility so far hasn't depressed Westpark home prices. In fact, they're going up, not down, buoyed in part by a short supply of homes on the market throughout Bakersfield.

So perhaps it's not too late to sell.

Local appraiser Gary Crabtree predicts Bakersfield home prices overall will rise 18 percent this year. That's obscured the effect of a potential freeway through the area, he said.

"This is by no means a normal market," Crabtree said. "(Realtors) would tell you that given it was a normal market and they have plenty to choose from, buyers would shy away from this area because it's a fear of the unknown."

Instead, "There's such a shortage and such a demand that it's artifically driving prices. Therefore, I don't know that this particular Westpark market is going to have a chance to react" to the impact of freeway plans.

Investors looking for houses to buy and rent out or renovate and sell are driving the demand. So are people who are able to clear their bad credit history now, after the worst of the recession, and start over, Crabtree said.

Properties the city would have to buy for the project could even be thought of as an investment, if prices keep rising.

Of course, for houses that would remain, within sight or earshot of the freeway, it's a bit more of a gamble.

"What is the socio-economic level of the neighborhood going to be like in five, six or seven years after the freeway is going to be built?" Crabtree said.

 

SALES PRICES

There's not quite enough information to draw broad conclusions about Westpark home prices, Crabtree said. But there is anecdotal data.

Around Centennial Park, three homes on La Mirada Drive are listed, $189,000 to $234,900 for the one with a jacuzzi bathtub. Another sale is pending on La Mirada, for $92,000. It was a rental property that was mistreated and would normally sell for $140,000 or more, Crabtree said.

Homes have been selling for less in the subdivision centered around Joseph Drive and North McDonald Way, Crabtree noted. Two current listings asked for $99,000 and $115,000. Last year, there were a dozen sales there, from $40,000 to $108,000. Those were mainly foreclosures or short sales, which usually means a deal for a buyer, but not as much now, Crabtree said.

"The short sales are almost always being sold at a discount, but now they're being bid up because of a shortage of supply," he said.

Andy Lagasse, a Realtor for Watson Realty, knows the demand for houses in Bakersfield is high now.

"In the $150,000 to $160,000 price range, it's a war right now," he said. Recently, he represented would-be buyers for a house that sold for $150,000 after drawing 45 offers, he said. Another in that price range attracted 11 offers its first day on the market.

Both were west of downtown. Westpark might be a different story, he said, because of the potential of the freeway cutting through it.

"That's going to impact ability to sell," particularly if the freeway will be visible from the house, he said. "Do you want to look at a freeway or do you want to look at palm trees?"

A more likely scenario is that investors will buy up the homes, but at depressed prices, and rent them out, he said.

A couple of weeks ago, Lagasse sent a flyer to Westpark residents offering his services to help them determine their home values. He said he's doing that work for free, in the hopes that when people are forced to relocate from Westpark, they'll enlist his help.

He's already gotten about a dozen responses, he said, though it's not all been of the good kind. One woman called to complain loudly that he was frightening people in the neighborhood.

"I didn't mean to scare anybody, but you need to be ready just in case," he said.

 

HIGH INTEREST, BUT CHALLENGES

In the meantime, Realtors for Westpark houses are seeing a lot of interest in the homes they represent.

Selling a house in Westpark doesn't come without challenges, said Gail Malouf, a Realtor for Coldwell Banker. She's the listing agent for a house on the corner of La Mirada Drive, just opposite Centennial Park. The owners are retired and looking to downsize.

The house isn't in the path of Alternative B, but just down the street, more than two dozen houses would be torn down for the freeway.

"Mine isn't affected, but it is a challenge still," Malouf said. "People aren't sure what's going to happen to the area as far as the pricing" of homes in the future. "There's people that are interested in the area, but they're still not sure."

Nevertheless, there's been a respectable amount of interest in the house. One recent would-be buyer got "cold feet," but Malouf put the house back on the market Wednesday, and showed it five times on Wednesday and Thursday. That's normal, given the current short supply of houses for sale, she said.

"Some (people), (the freeway project) doesn't matter to them at all, and others (say) what's going to happen to them?" Malouf said. "That's going to have to be your decision what you're going to do."

Marilou Ward, a local real estate broker for Forward Real Estate, recently listed a property on Montclair Street that would be around the corner and about five lots from the freeway if Alternative B is built. The single-story house netted multiple offers over the course of a week and is going for $11,000 above its listing price.

The offer was $171,000, in cash, according to Crabtree. The sale was still pending as of Thursday, according to Ward.

"It could've gone higher," Ward said. "There's such a shortage of inventory that it's not at all uncommon for things to sell for quite a bit above list price."

The house is bank-owned, which means potential buyers don't have a live-in resident to ask questions. Instead, Ward said, she discloses that a freeway is planned for the area and potential buyers should investigate more on their own:

"Until the thing is actually there, nobody knows what the impact is actually going to be to that house."

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