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Hot ’Hoods

These hot spots, drawing multiple offers, are closing in on 2007 peaks.


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With the 2008 recession becoming a distant memory, the real estate scene is a seller’s market, thanks to intense demand and shrunken inventory. That means multiple offers per property, above-asking-price deals, and overall cutthroat competition for the home of your dreams. If you’re thinking about buying a home, the best time was yesterday. The second-best time: today. But not all neighborhoods are created equal. We looked at market listings, median price per square foot, sale-to-list ratio, and sales volume to find which locales are the hottest. Some are even closing in on their 2007 highs, making demand in these neighborhoods all the more heated, as buyers rush to nab properties before prices surge even more.


 

Michael Polk

1. Micro Market

Alamo // Contra Costa County

Close enough to bigger cities like Walnut Creek but secluded enough to ensure an air of exclusivity, Alamo is a tough market to buy into. And that challenge makes it all the more desirable for people with money and confidence regained post recession.

This little unincorporated town, quiet under a canopy of established oaks, is coveted for all of its attributes: beautiful homes, good schools, open space, and easy commutes.

“The luxury home market has vastly improved,” says Empire Realty President Hank Perry. “So you see that in micro markets like Alamo.”

Since 2012, the number of $2 million–plus homes sold has jumped by 33 percent, according to Perry’s stats.

“That’s staggering,” he says.

“That means people of means who were holding onto their money during the recession are confident enough to spend it again to buy the upgrade they may have held off before because of market uncertainties.”

Cost to buy: median $1.8 million.

33%: Percent jump, since 2012, of the number of $2 million–plus homes sold in Alamo.

 

2. Starter Houses

Saranap // Contra Costa County

First-time buyers looking for a spot close to the East Bay’s shopping mecca, Walnut Creek, can find relatively affordable homes in bucolic, unincorporated areas like Saranap, a one-square-mile pocket of 5,200 residents nestled between Lafayette and Walnut Creek. Homes here are small, many of them bungalows.

The area—named after an early 20th century railroad developer’s mother, Sara Napthaly—has had plenty of chances to get annexed into both Lafayette and Walnut Creek, but residents voted against it each time.

Saranap Village would revamp the area, rendering it an entirely new town. The design in the works includes three separate buildings clustered around Saranap Avenue and Boulevard Way, with street-level shops, underground and behind-building parking, and about 325 apartments. Though construction is a few years away, it would bring this corner of the East Bay up to par with downtown Walnut Creek.

Cost to buy: median list price of $720,000, but you can sometimes find tiny (read: 628 square feet) cottages for as low as $275,000.
 

3. Executive Tract Homes

Crystyl Ranch // Concord

The value of homes built in the early to mid–2000s tumbled the hardest when the recession slammed the nation in 2008, and Crystyl Ranch was no exception. A Seeno Homes tract built off Ygnacio Valley Road on the Walnut Creek side of Concord, Crystyl Ranch hit the $1 million mark with its two-story homes in 2006 and 2007, and those homes plummeted to the $650,000 range in 2008.

“It wasn’t pretty,” says Brian McCarthy, a broker-associate at Windermere Real Estate in Walnut Creek. “But those are the homes that are really hot right now.”

Although located in Concord, the neighborhood feeds into Northgate High in Walnut Creek. Some of the homes have views. Floor plans range from 2,300 to 4,000 square feet.

“This is an executive development, so you’ve got a lot of people moving in and out—until the recession, when they might’ve gotten stuck here,” says McCarthy. “But prices shot up again.”

Cost to buy: $700,000 to $1 million.
 

4. Single Family Homes

South Livermore // Alameda County

Just like its superhot downtown, with new bars and restaurants seemingly opening every other day, Livermore’s real estate market is sizzling. In fact, in a national survey of metro markets, Livermore ranks among the top five hottest in the country, according to real estate think tank Redfin Research Center.

The average down payment is—unbelievably—61 percent. People are buying homes mostly with cash, within days or weeks of their hitting the market.

“It’s got everything that makes the Bay Area so appealing, but it’s cheaper: It’s the most affordable city in the Tri-Valley,” says Karen Crowson, who sells homes primarily in Livermore Valley wine country for Alain Pinel Realtors. “It’s got the vineyard views; newer, statelier homes; top-ranking schools; and a national award–winning downtown.”

South Livermore, in particular, has become a coveted neighborhood, with its nearby estate wineries, rolling hills, and mix of larger new homes and older starter cottages. Sellers are pricing homes higher and higher, inching closer to prerecession levels.

Livermore attracts buyers looking for a newly built home, often with large square footage. But the town, established in 1869, claims a rich history, with homes from 19th century ranches to mid–20th century cottages and 1970s ranch homes.

Cost to buy: median of $550,000.
 

5. Retro Modern

Orinda Hills // Contra Costa County

Home sales for properties costing more than $1 million are booming all over the region, particularly in Orinda.

Many wealthy buyers are choosing hillside and hilltop properties with beautiful views and one-of-a-kind architecture, from luxury custom-built homes (including one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, asking price: $3.35 million) to older, more down-to-earth ridgeline ranch homes. The grand Orinda Country Club draws prospective buyers, too.

East Bay Modern Real Estate agent Matthew Sorrenti says older ranch-style homes with massive windows and picturesque views are a hot commodity here, if retro modern is your style. “It doesn’t appeal to everyone,” Sorrenti says. “There’s lots of glass: Almost all the outside walls are made of glass … which really opens up the beautiful views. You’re really living in the hills when you’re in that part of Orinda.”

Inventory has steadily declined since 2012, dropping by more than a third and pushing prices up near previous peaks.

Cost to buy: median $1.6 million.
 

Courtesy of Stoneridge Creek6. New Retirement Community

Stoneridge Creek // Pleasanton

Let’s be clear: This isn’t your grandparent’s retirement home. This brand-new 50-acre campus east of the 580-680 interchange is swanky.

Just check out the restaurants, fitness center, performing arts theater, billiard and card rooms, swimming pool, and sauna, plus various outdoor amenities like tennis courts, trails, a dog park, bocce lanes, and a short-game golf course. Buyers can choose from 20 one-story floor plans, ranging from little apartments to spacious penthouses.

There’s also a health center with 68 skilled nursing beds and a dedicated memory center, which offers workshops to promote memory and fight symptoms related to Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

Residents must be 60 years old, and spots are filling up fast. More than 60 percent of the 414 units have been snatched up.

Cost to buy: $200,000 to $1 million.
 

Eichler home sold by East Bay Modern Real Estate7. Eichler Homes

Rancho San Miguel // Walnut Creek

When Joseph Eichler built 375 homes in the Rancho San Miguel subdivision in the late 1950s, Walnut Creek was a rural outpost along Ygnacio Valley Road surrounded by ranches, walnut and almond orchards, and untouched open space.

Today, Rancho San Miguel, near Heather Farm Park, is populated by people drawn to Eichler’s distinctive midcentury modernism, clean lines, and floor-to-ceiling windows that let in natural light.

“People love these homes,” says East Bay Modern’s Sorrenti. “Eichler did what no one else did: He brought the outside into the living space.”

Eichler homes often surround an enclosed patio, with space for trees and a small garden. Consider it a smaller, more casual reprise of ancient Roman residential architecture, which often included a walled-in courtyard between the street-side gate and the front door.

In addition to attracting modern design enthusiasts, this cluster of homes draws families looking for great schools, nice parks, the natural landscape of Mt. Diablo State Park, and lively downtown Walnut Creek.

Again, low supply plays into the through-the-roof demand for a place in this neighborhood. Sorrenti says it’s common to see offers $100,000 over the asking price (which usually ranges around $800,000, compared to $600,000 last year).

Cost to buy: median $800,000.

10,000: Number of Eichlers remaining in the Bay Area, making them a sought-after find.

 

Courtesy of Bill Gunn/Windemere Specialist8. Newish Development

Dougherty Valley // San Ramon

In San Ramon, which lacks a downtown, the big draw is a manicured community with great schools. Almost all of Dougherty Valley is less than 15 years old, and its schools rank among the best in the state for test scores and college admissions.

And unlike virtually every other part of the East Bay, inventory is up 15 percent from last year because of rapid new-home construction. As of July, Windemere homes and newer upscale tract-style units are being snatched up within days of being listed, following multiple offers.

“It’s just too hot here,” says real estate agent Bill Gunn, of J. Rockliff Realtors. “The average sale price increased 17.5 percent due to supply and demand.”

Cost to buy: average $965,000.

30: Nights people camped out to buy the last dougherty valley Shapell model homes.

 

Amit Patel9. Off the Beaten Path

Clayton // Contra Costa County

There’s a definite downside to this town of 11,000 at the foot of Mount Diablo: It’s quite a drive from the I-680 freeway. But that’s what makes it relatively more affordable.

This four-square-mile swath of quaint neighborhoods, sprawling ranches, and newish development attracts competitive bids. Potential buyers range from families starting out to folks closer to retirement age looking for a nearby golf course like Oakhurst Country Club.

“It’s just a really happening market—the entire region,” says Perry of Empire Realty. “So even when you go out to Clayton, where inventory’s also low, you’re seeing a lot of demand for whatever is available.”

Inventory in Clayton is down 41 percent from last year. And though offers are coming in on average at two percent over the listing price, houses aren’t sitting long on the market.

In a rush to nab what they can in a market that’s seeing prices tick up faster than appraisers can assess current value, buyers often agree to waive the appraisal contingencies and pay the difference, agents say. That’s true in Clayton and elsewhere in the East Bay, where low supply is sparking feverish demand, even in rural neighborhoods.

Cost to buy: median $649,000.

30%: Percent increase of median list price in clayton compared to last year.

 

10. New Development

Wilder // Orinda

Less than a half hour drive from downtown San Francisco and minutes from BART, Wilder lies in a valley protected by hundreds of acres of open space.

Developers designed this 245-home enclave as a rural retreat, but it’s close to commuter destinations thanks to the straight shot Highway 24 takes through the Caldecott Tunnel. The homes are mostly large and posh, ranging from 2,500 to 6,000 square feet. Since the recession slowed construction for so long, new developments are going to be sought after, experts say, especially in Orinda, which has seen a drop in inventory since April.

Although nestled in a natural landscape, the development lies minutes from downtown Orinda, Moraga, and Lafayette. It’s close to some of the best schools in the state—both public and private.

Cost to buy: starting at $1.5 million.
 

11. Peace and Quiet

Moraga // Contra Costa County

Moraga has always been a market in demand, but it’s more so lately with the dearth of inventory fueling interest in this tucked-away town with stellar schools and a tight-knit community.

The median list price here is $974,000. It’s rare for a well-priced home to sit more than a week on the market. Moraga has inched up to two percent shy of its prerecess-ionary peak.

“This is a very peaceful community,” says Hacienda Real Estate agent Bob Wegener, who’s sold homes in the area for more than three decades.

“There’s no freeway noise, and it’s kind of pushed back from all the urbanized areas like downtown Lafayette and Walnut Creek.”

This suburb of 16,000, a 15-minute drive from Highway 24, was named one of the best places to live by Money magazine. The rebuilt Moraga Country Club has also brought new life to the sleepy ‘burb.

Cost to buy: median $974,000.
 

12. Live-Work Lofts

Emeryville // Alameda County

Venture closer to the Bay to find one of the hottest trends in real estate: lofts. These live-work spaces are often converted from defunct factories and warehouses, putting Emeryville on the map for its cutting-edge urban renewal, and placing upscale homes in mixed-use districts, many with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline.

Work-from-home types flock to these spacious, modern gems, which happen to be within walking distance of many biotech and technology giants, like LeapFrog and Pixar. And commuters take note: Some live-work developments provide free shuttle rides to the closest BART station. Offers typically come in at 8.4 percent over asking, with an average of six to seven offers per property.

Ultra-hip Emeryville Warehouse is one such live-work development. The 141-unit loft building was constructed in 1925 for a fruit-drying company. In 1999, developers converted the old factory into a modern living space with a 4,500-square-foot courtyard embellished with a dramatic five-story water wall fountain.

Cost to buy: median $337,000.

 

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