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Bay Area home sales remained sluggish and prices stayed flat in December, a real estate information service reported Thursday.
The nine-county region had sales of 7,178 new and existing homes and condominiums last month, according to San Diego-based DataQuick Information Systems.
Home sales rose almost 18 percent from November, but analysts dismissed the increase as typical at the end of the year. More importantly, they said, last month’s sales were 8 percent lower than a year earlier and 17 percent below the average for December sales over the past 22 years.
The median price declined to $375,000, down 1.3 percent from both a month and a year earlier.
The region’s median price peaked at $665,000 in June and July of 2007, and hit a new low of $290,000 in March 2009. Analysts said about half that decline was due to the drop in home values, while the other half was due to a sales shift toward lower-priced homes.
DataQuick concluded that many buyers appeared to be holding back, including those seeking to move up to more-expensive homes.
“Right now, most of what we’re seeing are distress sales and bargain hunting, with a smattering of discretionary buying,” said John Walsh, DataQuick president.
“While the dicey economy and employment concerns are major factors, tight mortgage credit is also a big issue right now, especially for the upper half of the market,” Walsh said.
Nearly 31 percent of December sales involved homes that had been foreclosed on in the prior 12 months. That portion was up for the fifth consecutive month and the highest rate since last March. The monthly average for such sales over the past 15 years is about 8 percent.
Feb. 07--More than 5,000 consumers and businesses on the North Coast sought protection from their creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last year, an unprecedented wave of financial misery that experts said is unlikely to recede anytime soon.
More than half of the region's bankruptcy filings came from Sonoma County. It is the largest number of cases Judge Alan Jaroslovsky has witnessed in 24 years on the bench at federal bankruptcy court in Santa Rosa.
"I'm numb," said Jaroslovsky, chief judge for the court's Northern District in California.
Bankruptcy filings have grown each year since the recession began in 2007, and there's no sign of a letup.
"I kept thinking it was going to peak," he said. "But our numbers from January are up from last year."
Filings in 2010 almost tripled from 2007, when 1,732 debtors sought relief.
Sonoma County is the bankruptcy hot spot in the North Coast district, which includes Marin, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
Pushed to the brink by job losses and falling property values, a record 2,574 Sonoma County residents filed bankruptcy last year, up 14 percent from 2009.
"The driving factor is real estate," said Jaroslovsky. "Real estate values are going down and they're not coming back."
Don't expect filings to slack off in 2011, said Douglas Provencher, an attorney who has practiced bankruptcy law in Santa Rosa for 33 years and teaches seminars on the subject.
Even with the economy on the upswing, many are too deep in debt to avoid it.
"They've been struggling for several years and they're reaching the end," Provencher said. "I don't see a lot of improvement."
The fastest growth is in Chapter 13 filings, which can help hard-pressed consumers hold on to their homes. Last year, personal bankruptcies outnumbered business failures by about 20 to 1.
People who have struggled with debt for several years appear to be giving up, Jaroslovsky said.
"They've done what they can to make a go of it. There's a feeling that they're just throwing in the towel," he said.
It's a myth that those who seek bankruptcy protection are reckless spenders who are simply trying to weasel out of their debts, he said.
"Nobody wakes up in the morning and says 'I can hardly wait to file for bankruptcy today,'" he said. "We are talking about people who are down on their luck."
Sonoma County's increase reflected a national trend. U.S. bankruptcy filings rose 14 percent in 2010, from 1.4 to almost 1.6 million, according to the federal courts.
Hard times toppled some well-known names in the local business community last year, including Skyhawk Village Market co-owners Mike Runyan and Todd Davis, Nordby Construction CEO Wendell "Del" Nordby III, Petaluma's Adobe Creek Golf Club and North Bay real estate firm Morgan Lane Real Estate.
But business bankruptcies remained flat in Sonoma County last year, even as personal bankruptcies rose for the fourth straight year.
In 2006, a new federal law made it harder for individuals to liquidate their debts in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, imposing a complicated means test and other requirements on those trying to wipe out their debts and start over.
The change prompted a rush of bankruptcy filings in 2005, as consumers tried to get relief under the old rules, then resulted in a sharp drop in filings the following year. On the North Coast, the number of new cases fell from 4,682 in 2005 to 981 in 2006, a drop of nearly 80 percent.
The numbers have risen each year since, surpassing the old record last year.
"The hard times have blown right past it," Jaroslovsky said.
Most debtors file for Chapter 7 relief, which wipes out their debts but requires them to liquidate most of their assets to pay creditors.
In a Chapter 13 reorganization, debtors are allowed to keep more of their assets while they repay their creditors over three to five years.
More than 1,000 North Coast debtors filed under Chapter 13 last year, compared to 243 in 2007.
People are choosing to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy if there's a possibility of saving their homes, Jaroslovsky said. But reorganization plans don't always succeed.
Some who filed for Chapter 13 at the start of the recession have been forced into Chapter 7 liquidation as economic conditions got worse.
"Some people can't make it," he said.
The crush of filings means it can take longer for him to make rulings, Jaroslovsky said. But the court is keeping up.
"Thank goodness for electronic filing," he said. "That has been the saving grace."
For creditors, the bankruptcy process can mean getting repaid in full, in part, or not at all. Every case is different, Jaroslovsky said.
But creditors usually get little from Chapter 7 liquidations, he said.
"In the majority of those cases, there's nothing left," he said.