Though trailing Portland, Columbia County housing is on an upswing

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Columbia County's housing market is slowly on the mend, following Portland's recovering market. Realtors say it's the first sign of recovery in years. The Columbia County real estate market may be on its way to recovery.

Ask Lisa Frahm, president of the Columbia County Board of Realtors, and she’ll tell you: home prices in the county are creeping back up, and the worst is behind us.

In the last 12 months, the average appreciation in home prices in Columbia County was .7 percent — a modest number for sure, Frahm said.

“It may sound dismal, but I’m excited. It means we’re at the bottom.”

And that means there’s nowhere to go but up.

Since 2006, there was an average depreciation of 46 percent in home sale prices in Columbia County, Frahm said. But last year, that double-digit slide turned into single-digit appreciation.

Columbia County is slowly following the rebound that’s settled into the Portland housing market, she explained.

According to the year-end Case-Shiller home price index report, home prices in Portland increased at a price above the national average, a difference of 5.2 percent versus 4.3 percent.

For years, Portland was a buyer’s market, where sellers were desperately searching for qualified buyers, Frahm said. But now, Portland buyers can be seen lining up outside houses, waiting for that first look inside.

“It’s swung from being unstable in Portland to being a kind of aggressive market,” she said. “I’d say it’s changed over to be a seller’s market now.”

In Columbia County, especially in areas closer to Portland, realtors are seeing signs of recovery for the first time in years, Frahm said.

“Columbia County is pulling out of the slide very, very slowly,” she said.

If realtors and home buyers in Columbia County are at the front end of a recovery, builders and city administrators are reporting that it hasn’t quite trickled down to them yet. They’re still working hard to stay afloat.

Rich Bailey, a builder and member of the Portland Metropolitan Home Builders Association board of directors, reported some new activity in 2012, giving reasons for optimism. He started building a few new homes last year, but continued work on remodeling projects — a trend that hasn’t died down in the past few years.

“There aren’t a lot of people moving to St. Helens and Scappoose,” Bailey said, citing low job growth and the high cost of fuel for commuters. “Columbia County is going to suffer for quite a while.”

Bailey has branched out to continue to take on building projects, and is now working on a new house in Washougal, Wash.

Fewer foreclosures and short sales seem to be on the market, and Bailey is hopeful that will clear the way in 2013 for new houses built with a few personal touches.

“I think we are getting closer to that point,” he said.

In Columbia City, City Administrator Leahnette Rivers has been watching building permit revenue stay flat since the recession hit. She’s not expecting much change in 2013.

Before the recession, about 40 new homes were being built each year, she said. Now it’s down to about one new home start per year, a figure that’s locked into Columbia City’s budget for the foreseeable future.

“We were one of the fastest growing cities in the county there for a while,” Rivers said.

The situation was made worse in 2011, when assessed property values fell 28 percent, bringing in less revenue for the city.

In St. Helens, Building Official Brian Don reports permitting about one new single family dwelling each month, far from the peak of more than 20 homes monthly before the recession.

Don is seeing more activity in commercial real estate, and expects it to continue to pick up in 2013.

“There will be fairly substantially more than we’ve seen in the past few years,” he said. On tap is the new Les Schwab, and several other commercial projects still in their infancy.

“As far as residential growth, I’m not expecting that to change,” Don said.

The downward trend in volume is mirrored in Scappoose as well, said City Manager Jon Hanken.

Numbers of new building permits have gone down significantly since the mid-2000s, with six total permits logged in 2012.

“We had one month in 2006 when 100 new house permits came in,” Hanken said.

Having revenue slow to a trickle in the city’s building department has had an impact on other parts of the city’s budget, he said. In this fiscal year, for example, the building fund needed a subsidy from the general fund to stay on positive ground, Hanken said.

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