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How and why we created a map and database of Sonoma County home lots burned by fires

To help better understand and to view the scope of burned lots listed and sold in the north Santa Rosa neighborhoods, and countywide, torched by the 2017 wildfires, The Press Democrat developed an interactive map showing the precise locations of those charred lots listed and sold by street address from November 2017 through December 2018.

The addresses and listing and sales prices of each lot were provided to the newspaper by Compass real estate brokerage in Santa Rosa and Glen Ellen-based real estate analytics group Terradatum. Since the fires, about 20 lots in the county were sold and put back on the market again for sale. Those listings are included in the overall tally.

There likely is a slim margin of error in tracking the precise number of fire lots listed and sold because the real estate Multiple Listing Service doesn’t distinguish the burned home lots from other empty residential parcels for sale in Sonoma County. Also, the city and county keep a tally of building permits but not of fire lots. To cull monthly figures of burned lots listed and sold, Rick Laws of Compass and Terradatum analysts overlaid maps on the fire-devastated areas with ZIP codes of lots listed for sale and provided that data to the newspaper which then analyzed the data and plotted the digital map and database.

For a larger map and search functionality, visit pressdemocrat.com/firelots.


This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

Like other Tubbs fire survivors, Kris and Allen Sudduth initially wanted to rebuild their two-story home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

After the October 2017 wildfire, the Sudduths met with a builder and tentatively selected a home design for their lot on Hopper Avenue. After further consideration, they concluded a contractor couldn’t rebuild the life they once had in the fire-ravaged neighborhood in the northwest section of the city.

“They would build a house, but it wouldn’t be my home,” said Kris Sudduth, a part-time nurse.

They would build a house, but it wouldn’t be my home. —Kris Sudduth, a Tubbs fire survivor from Coffey Park

The Sudduths realized what they really wanted was a chance to start over in a different area with a home in the countryside. So in May 2018, they bought a single-story ranchette on a half-acre property west of Santa Rosa. A month earlier, they had sold their charred Coffey Park lot to an investor, who has yet to begin rebuilding a house on it.

This will be a pivotal year of decision for about 2,100 Sonoma County fire survivors — those who unlike the Sudduths have yet to commit to rebuilding or selling their burned lots. These survivors constitute about 40 percent of people who lost 5,334 homes in the 2017 wildfires, predominantly from the Tubbs fire, which ranks as the second-most destructive wildfire in California history.

What they ultimately decide to do will determine whether the pace of rebuilding on the large swath of north Santa Rosa, blackened by the infernos, accelerates this year. Only 150 of the houses destroyed in the fires have been rebuilt as of last week, according to city and county records.

Of property owners opting to sell their lots, their reasons range from the difficulty of rebuilding to the desire to find another place to live — sometimes neither in a burned area nor a construction zone.

This year also will be key for investors and builders trying to determine whether they can make money in a sluggish local housing market on speculative home construction on lots scorched by the fires. For many, it will be the first year they build and try to sell so-called “spec” houses in the Santa Rosa neighborhoods — Fountaingrove, Coffey Park, Larkfield and Mark West Springs — burned most severely by the Tubbs fire.

Potential glut of burned lots on the market

Fifteen months after the fires, a Press Democrat analysis of the listings and sales of burned lots in Sonoma County, and the progress of post-fire home rebuilding, shows fire survivors selling their torched land find themselves in a buyers’ market. The number of available lots to choose from far exceeds monthly sales. Real estate agents worry the ample supply of such lots could balloon this year, if many fire survivors decide not to rebuild where their homes were burned.

From November 2017 through December 2018, 717 empty burned lots in Sonoma County have been listed for sale, and 444 of them have been sold for a median sales price of $254,750. The greatest number of lots listed and sold were in Fountaingrove, where 336 lots were listed and 197 were sold, including nine that were sold and put back on the market. The area where the fewest lots went on the market, 38, and were sold, 19, was in Sonoma Valley. During the 13-month period, the median sales price of the burned lots sold ranged from $190,000 in Coffey Park to $505,000 in Sonoma Valley.

How and why we created a map and database of Sonoma County home lots burned by fires

To help better understand and to view the scope of burned lots listed and sold in the north Santa Rosa neighborhoods, and countywide, torched by the 2017 wildfires, The Press Democrat developed an interactive map showing the precise locations of those charred lots listed and sold by street address from November 2017 through December 2018.

The addresses and listing and sales prices of each lot were provided to the newspaper by Compass real estate brokerage in Santa Rosa and Glen Ellen-based real estate analytics group Terradatum. Since the fires, about 20 lots in the county were sold and put back on the market again for sale. Those listings are included in the overall tally.

There likely is a slim margin of error in tracking the precise number of fire lots listed and sold because the real estate Multiple Listing Service doesn’t distinguish the burned home lots from other empty residential parcels for sale in Sonoma County. Also, the city and county keep a tally of building permits but not of fire lots. To cull monthly figures of burned lots listed and sold, Rick Laws of Compass and Terradatum analysts overlaid maps on the fire-devastated areas with ZIP codes of lots listed for sale and provided that data to the newspaper which then analyzed the data and plotted the digital map and database.

For a larger map and search functionality, visit pressdemocrat.com/firelots.


This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

Among the highlights of The Press Democrat’s analysis of fire lots:

More than 75 percent of the sales of all empty residential lots sold countywide during the first nine months of 2018 were parcels where homes burned in the fires. The number of those overall lot sales more than tripled from the same nine-month period of 2017, according to Compass real estate brokerage.

At the end of December 2018, there were nearly eight months of inventory of fire lots for sale based on the pace of monthly sales.

Although more fire lots are for sale in Fountaingrove, the hillside neighborhood thus far lags Coffey Park in home rebuilding. Owners there have sought building permits for about one-third of all of the neighborhood’s burned properties, compared with nearly two-thirds of owners who have gotten permits to rebuild on fire lots in Coffey Park.

More than half of the burned lots listed for sale in Fountaingrove have been sold.

A larger portion of listed fire lots remain unsold in the county’s rural areas compared with city neighborhoods. Three of four listed lots have sold in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, compared with four in 10 in Sonoma Valley and the Mark West and Riebli areas, from east of John B. Riebli School to Calistoga.

City and county building permits and real estate records indicate more than half of the county’s fire survivors whose homes were destroyed have made decisions regarding the future of their burned properties. Either fire survivors or builders of “spec” homes are proceeding with plans to build about 2,300 homes.

Taking into account the roughly 700 homeowners who have chosen to sell their burned lots, that leaves about 2,100 more fire survivors who have yet to apply for a building permit to replace their houses or to list their lots for sale. Most of those homeowners are facing a deadline. Their homeowner insurance coverage for temporary rental housing likely will end by October, two years after the natural disaster.

Most of the real estate agents and analysts interviewed for this story expressed concern that the remaining burned lots could sit empty for an extended period, if their owners opt to put large numbers of them in an already bloated market.

Fire survivors might be able to start the permit process now and still have a home rebuilt by the second anniversary of the blazes in October 2019, local builders said. Time is running out to do that, though, and many real estate agents don’t foresee a rush by the remaining fire survivors to rebuild houses.

“The majority of people who haven’t rebuilt aren’t going to rebuild,” said John Duran, a real estate agent who represented the Sudduths.

"The majority of people who haven’t rebuilt aren’t going to rebuild." — John Duran, a local real estate agent

Instead, those who have yet to take action are more likely to sell their lots or hold onto them as investment properties, said Duran, a broker associate with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.

For those who decide to part with their land, he said, “we’re advising them to sell sooner rather than later.” The reason is prices could fall, if a large number of burned home lots come on the market.

What’s more, those burned parcels would hit a local housing market that has been shifting and softening during the final months of 2018. The sale of single-family homes for the past six years in Sonoma County has been characterized as a sellers’ market, with limited inventory and rising prices. However, since last summer, prices have fallen and the number of houses on the market has significantly increased. The median sales price of a house in December fell to $639,000, a decline of 9 percent from the monthly record set last June of $700,000.

Daunting rebuild causes many to move on

Builders and local public officials have wondered why so many fire survivors have yet to sell their burned lots or apply for building permits. One oft-cited reason is home owners need more time to settle with their insurance companies on reimbursement and then determine if they can afford to rebuild at today’s cost of building materials.

Real estate agents working with fire survivors said their clients also need more time to consider whether they want to tackle the formidable task of rebuilding. Part of the consideration involves homeowners asking themselves whether they prefer a home in another neighborhood — or even another state. Indeed, newly released state data show an exodus from Sonoma County started in the aftermath of the fires. During the 12-month period ending July 1, 2018, 2,207 people left the county, the largest population decline of the 58 California counties.

Duran called it “a season of indecision” for fire survivors.

Many people are overwhelmed by their options, he said, none of which might seem desirable. As a result, “there’s such an uncertainty that people don’t want to do anything,” the real estate agent said.

Fountaingrove resident Amy Carter said she found the prospect of rebuilding daunting. She shed tears whenever she returned to her charred lot on Gardenview Place and looked outside at the devastation that filled the neighborhood.

Carter, a retired law firm manager, and her brother, Tom Leslie, last month moved into a newly constructed home in the University District community near Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.

“The house we were renting, nothing was ours,” Carter recalled. “This just felt like I can finally breathe.”

"The house we were renting, nothing was ours. This just felt like I can finally breathe. —Fountaingrove resident Amy Carter, who said she found the prospect of rebuilding daunting

In early December, before moving in, she found herself smiling as movers delivered a new dining room set and other furniture.

“It just made me more happy to know that we’re coming home,” she said.

Fountaingrove resident Bill Woodman, a retired chemical company manager, recalled “it took me a year to get clarity” about the way forward after his home on Stanhope Court was leveled by the flames. He said he came to realize his house was too underinsured to cover the loss and get a check from his insurer to pay to build another comparable house, especially given the “ridiculously high” bids he received from builders.

Woodman and his wife, Melinda, are looking for a new home and have listed their lot for sale, as have three other property owners on the same cul-de-sac in the neighborhood.

“We’d like to stay in Santa Rosa,” he said. “But Fountaingrove is out of the question.”

Judy and Thom Glenn said they moved quickly to rebuild after their Fountaingrove home burned on Blackhawk Circle. They hired an architect and paid for a new house plan.

But the Glenns soon encountered difficulties in rounding up engineers and other professionals needed to make their proposed home project a reality. And then the city of Santa Rosa announced that municipal water lines in their area were contaminated with the toxic chemical compound benzene — news that added to their uncertainty.

“To me the worst part, if we were going to rebuild, it was going to take so long,” said Judy Glenn, a retired certified public accountant.

One day as they traveled along Humboldt Street in Santa Rosa’s Junior College neighborhood, Judy Glenn noticed an attractive home. She told her husband, “I could live in a house like that.”

That led her on a search for a house in an established neighborhood. She wrote 150 letters to homeowners and inquired about buying their properties.

None of those houses were on the market, and no owner was willing to sell. By then, the couple was seriously looking to downsize, said Thom Glenn, a retired computer sales manager. He said he and his wife no longer needed a home with five bedrooms like the one that burned.

Last fall, the Glenns’ real estate agent, Brenda Alarcon of Keller Williams, called while the couple was out of town and said she had found their future home in a neighborhood east of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. The Glenns knew the house on California Avenue from about 15 years earlier when they had lived a few blocks away.

They immediately made an offer, bought the house and will move there soon.

“We loved that neighborhood,” Judy Glenn said.

The couple was ready for a smaller home, she said, and the fire forced them to think about what they wanted for the next stage of their lives.

Alarcon said the Glenns, Carter and her other fire-survivor clients decided that selling their burned lots and buying homes elsewhere was the right choice.

“They are so happy they didn’t wait to rebuild,” Alarcon said.

Removing excessive soil compounds the challenge

In contrast, Fountaingrove resident Steve Haussler said his options were drastically altered after debris removal crews hauled away too much dirt from his lot on Viewpoint Circle.

Haussler, a retired electronics industry manager, said his wife, Dixie, and he agreed to join the federal-sponsored public debris cleanup program because government officials repeatedly assured them they would end up with “a buildable lot.” But a program contractor last February removed 110 yards of soil from their property and left a portion of their home lot with what Haussler described as “a 12-foot cliff.”

“You went from a feeling of confidence to a feeling that the rug had just been pulled out,” he recalled.

You went from a feeling of confidence to a feeling that the rug had just been pulled out. —Fountaingrove resident Steve Haussler, who said cleanup crews hauled away too much dirt from his lot

The Hausslers became one of 1,000 North Coast households who complained about the debris cleanup, typically because of the removal of too much soil or damage to driveways, pools and other structures. The cleanup, overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, drew criticism because contractors were paid by the amount of material removed. Critics said that created an incentive to take away too much soil.

The Hausslers and about 240 other local property owners eventually were notified they would receive no further assistance.

Haussler and his real estate agent, Doug Solwick, a broker associate with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa, said officials considered the couple’s lot among the worst cases of excessive soil removal in the county. Representatives from a variety of local, state and federal agencies came to see the lot, Solwick recalled, and “everybody said we’re going to make it right.” However, in the end, he said, “nobody did anything.”

The Hausslers hired engineers and considered bringing in enough dirt themselves to repair the lot. However, last fall they sold the property as it is.

In September, the couple moved to Illinois to be near their son and his family. They plan to search for a home outside Chicago.

“We’re kind of like newlyweds with nothing,” Steve Haussler said.

What matters most, he said, is the couple escaped the fire with their lives. But he acknowledged, “our hearts are in Santa Rosa.”

Can builders make money building on charred land?

Real estate agents insisted prices of burned lots sold have fallen, in part because builders couldn’t pay the higher values and make a profit.

“The numbers just don’t work,” said Shawn Hermosillo, an agent with W Real Estate in Santa Rosa.

Hermosillo sold a lot last spring in Coffey Park for $185,000. By fall, he said, an identical lot there sold for $155,000, a decline of $30,000.

At first, “the builders were all fighting for those Coffey Park lots,” said Ron Larson, an agent with Coldwell Banker. But by the end of 2018, many investors showed little urgency to buy, especially because they expect more fire survivors to put burned lots on the market this year.

“There’s going to be plenty of opportunities” this year to buy fire lots, Larson said.

A number of builders have bought fire lots, though some acknowledged that questions remain about how profitable it will be to build and sell spec homes on them.

Greg Owen, CEO of Fairfield-based Silvermark Construction Services, said his company is building 50 spec houses and another 50 home rebuilds for fire survivors. To date, he has sold all the homes he has finished in both the Mark West and Fountaingrove neighborhoods, he said, and he plans in the coming months to pour foundations for fire survivors and spec houses at the rate of five houses a week.

Owen said he can build and sell houses on burned lots profitably because he is using his own money and not borrowing from banks to finance his construction.

“If we had debt on the property,” he said, “it would not work.”

Aaron Matz, president of Santa Rosa-based APM Homes, said along with the 60 homes he is rebuilding for Coffey Park fire survivors, he has bought about 20 fire lots, mostly located in that same neighborhood.

This winter, his company will offer its first spec house for sale on one of the burned lots. The response from buyers will help him determine whether he can make a profit with the approach.

“If not, we’ll go back to building tract (houses),” he said.

Matz predicted by October perhaps 60 percent of the 5,300 houses burned down in 2017 will be on track for rebuilding. That would still leave over 2,000 other fire lots cleaned of debris but empty.

“The rest is just going to take its time to work its way into the hands of spec builders or owner builders,” he said.

‘A crucial part of our local fabric’

Keith Christopherson, a partner with his wife, Brenda, in Christopherson Builders in Santa Rosa, said his company has acquired roughly a dozen fire lots, but remains focused first on completing the 60 houses it is rebuilding for fire survivors.

Christopherson said he remains interested in buying burned lots that offer the potential for spec houses. Such properties have been difficult to find, though, especially given high construction costs that he considers “flat-out astonishing.”

Christopherson, who in earlier decades built hundreds of homes in Fountaingrove, said the high-end neighborhood is “a crucial part of our local fabric.” The fires there displaced doctors, engineers, CEOs and entrepreneurs. He said rebuilding those homes will help Santa Rosa to recover.

“That’s a part of town that really needs to come back,” he said.

Mark Spaulding, a real estate agent with Compass who represents both fire survivors and builders of spec homes, said 2019 will provide evidence about how profitable it really is for builders to rebuild on fire lots. If they find enough buyers for their new houses, demand likely will increase for the burned lots.

“There’s a lot on the line here for a lot of builders,” Spaulding said.

The same goes for many fire survivors who remain torn between rebuilding or relocating. The only thing certain for them is they have empty charred lots where their houses stood before the flames came. For the Sudduths, who agonized over what to do before ultimately choosing to leave their neighborhood, they are comfortable with their decision eight months ago.

Last fall, Allen Sudduth, a musician and recording engineer, drove through Coffey Park and was pleased to see his old neighborhood’s significant progress. Nonetheless, he recalled leaving to return to his new house in a rural area outside Santa Rosa and thinking, “I am so grateful to be going home.”

You can reach Robert Digitale, who recently retired after nearly 40 years at the newspaper, at rdigit9@yahoo.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

For a neighborhood breakdown of lot listings and sales, click the arrow below left on the map.