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Flipping homes for profit in Sonoma County

Victor Miranda coils an extension cord after a day of work at a home flip project in Windsor.

ALVIN JORNADA/Press Democrat
Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 4:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 6:24 p.m.

The nine houses aren't yet ready for sale, but they offer a glimpse at a growing segment of the Sonoma County housing market: flipped homes.

The homes, featured last week in an email blast, were bought at foreclosure auctions and probate sales. Builders are now renovating them and will put some back on the market in the next two weeks.

Homes spruced up by flippers, like these, are moving quickly and frequently draw a barrage of offers, agents said.

“We have multiple offers for almost every property,” said Paul Heck, an agent with RE/MAX Central who sent out the email ad.

Real estate entrepreneurs have long engaged in flipping homes, the often-risky business of buying a property, fixing it up and quickly reselling it.

A decade ago, flipping drew attention as a way to make quick money off soaring home values. Some of the get-rich glamor faded when the housing market crashed and homes lost value faster than they could be flipped.

Today builders, investors and real estate companies have teamed up to flip homes into a market where prices are rising — the median was up 22 percent in February from last year — and inventories are at the lowest level since 2005.

The local companies include W Real Estate, Praxis Capital, Sun Pacific Mortgage and Christopherson Homes. The county's biggest player remains Vacaville-based Blue Mountain Realty, which sold at least 149 county properties worth $50 million in the past 12 months.

Builders have turned to flipping as a way to stay in business during a sharp downturn in construction. New home projects remain rare because homebuyers usually can purchase existing houses for far less than the cost of building new ones.

“A house flipper is your home builder of the current decade,” said Brian Burke, a managing director of Praxis Capital in Santa Rosa.

Some rough measures suggest that flipping increased last year.

In the first half of 2012, Americans flipped 100,000 homes, a 25 percent increase over a year earlier, according to RealtyTrac.

In Sonoma County, public records show that last year 252 homes sold twice within six months, a common definition of flipping, according to DataQuest. That was 33 percent higher than 2011.

However, both those counts don't include homes bought at foreclosure auctions and private sales. Many observers said the number of such flips is far higher than those found solely in public records.

Several estimated that flipping could constitute roughly 15 to 25 percent of the county's traditional housing market. That would exclude bank foreclosures and short sales.

For the past 12 months, three of the county's top 15 agents by dollar sales were engaged primary in flipping: Randy Waller of W Real Estate, J Barreto of RE/MAX Central and Greg Owen of Blue Mountain Realty.

Flippers debate the role their work is playing in the recent uptick in home prices.

Some, like Burke, dismissed the idea that flipping has contributed to the rising prices.

With a home, he explained, “there's a price bracket when it's trashed and there's a price bracket when it's fixed up.” The improved homes command a bigger price, but buyers are the ones who determine how high that price will rise.

As a counterpoint, Waller said most of the recent rise in prices is due to tight inventory and low interest rates. Even so, he maintained that home prices would be lower if it weren't for all the flipped properties.

“It increases the value in the whole surrounding area,” including homes not placed on the market, Waller said. “We've had people literally be able to refinance because of our flips” — using the new sales as comparable properties for appraisals.

That may be good news for current homeowners, but not so much for first-time buyers watching prices rise.

Others said that in recent months, the flippers themselves have benefited from the rise in values.

“They thought they were going to sell it for $400,000 and they've got it on the market for $450,000 and they're getting multiple offers,” said Rick Laws, a vice president of Pacific Union International in Santa Rosa.

Four years ago, flippers had plenty of distressed homes to buy and less competition to contend with.

“We were buying them so low at the courthouse,” Barreto recalled.

Eventually the deals attracted competition from other flippers, including Blue Mountain. The Vacaville company bought its first home in the county in late 2011 and quickly became the biggest buyer at auctions.

Since then, the competition has greatly increased from another group of investors: those who want to buy low-priced homes and turn them into rentals. In some parts of the country, the buyers include large investment companies purchasing homes in volume directly from banks.

Fewer distressed properties now are sold in public auctions. The fourth quarter of 2012 ended with 268 foreclosures, the lowest in six years.

The upshot is flippers are still finding homes. Blue Mountain already has purchased eight properties at foreclosure auctions this month, plus three more by other means, said Rick Revetria, the company's vice president of operations.

But it's taking more effort to find properties. Flippers these days have turned to buying higher-priced homes in better neighborhoods, while also looking for deals among short sales, estate sales and traditional sales. The key is finding a home in need of improvements that then could command a higher price.

Blue Mountain has been buying homes in other states, including Arizona, Nevada and Florida, Revetria said.

“We just expanded our playground, and we can keep our funds working,” he said.

Many predicted that the number of flips will decline here this year, mainly because fewer distressed properties will come to market.

“Six months from now it will be substantially less,” said Chris Peterson, also a managing director of Praxis Capital.

Those involved contend flipping offers at least two benefits. First, it improves homes that are so distressed banks typically won't lend on them. After they are fixed up, buyers can obtain conventional mortgages for their purchase.

Second, flipping often results in the upgrade of residential eyesores.

“The people in the neighborhood love it ... cause we're doing the ugliest house on the block,” said Forest Tardibuono, an owner with his wife Lynn of Sun Pacific Mortgage in Santa Rosa.

A net profit of $35,000 would be deemed a good flip, he said. And buyers today don't blink at paying an extra $30,000 for the improvements they want. They simply calculate that at today's interest rates, that would add only about $125 a month to a 30-year mortgage, he said.

Lynn Tardibuono, who finds and markets properties for flipping builders, said banks and regular home sellers have begun to notice the added appeal that buyers find in renovated homes.

“It's finished,” she said. “It's clean. I can move right in and have modern amenities.

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