Look Who's Moving to Alameda

Good Schools, Small-town Feel Attract Buyers


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Look Who's Moving to Alameda

Good Schools, Small-town Feel Attract Buyers


    When Tony and Cheryl Steuer decided to move from suburban Sacramento to be closer to their family in the Bay Area, a client suggested, “Why don’t you check out Alameda?’’ As Bay Area natives, they were a bit familiar with the Island. But it was the growing buzz about Alameda that drew them in, and in January they landed in a new home in the Bayport development on the West End.
    “We kept hearing how good the school district is, that one of the attractions is that it’s still kind of a small town right in the heart of the Bay Area,’’ says Tony Steuer, a life-insurance consultant who originally looked for a new home in San Ramon. “Everyone we mentioned Alameda to said, ‘You’ll love Alameda.’ ”
    Alameda real estate agents say the Steuers’ story is not unusual. The city has maintained its appeal, even in the state and national real estate slowdown of the last two years. While agents have seen a downturn in the condominium and high-end real estate sectors in Alameda, homes that are clean, remodeled and priced at or slightly under market rate  can still bring multiple offers, they say.
    “What we’re looking at is a pretty balanced market right now, compared to the market three or four years ago, when inventory was low and consumers were coming out en force and bidding up prices,’’ says Dennis Pagones, broker-owner of Harbor Bay Realty. “As long as sellers are realistic about their price, it’s a good market. And if buyers are in for the long term, it’s a great time to buy.’’
    Sales were down 7 percent on the main island and 11 percent on Bay Farm Island in 2006, compared with 2005. However, the median home price held steady in the Bay Farm Island area and was up 3 percent on the main island, according to DataQuick Real Estate News. Meanwhile, February showed an up tick, with sales up 3 percent from February 2006 and median home prices up $20,000 to $660,000.
    “The market is coming around again,’’ says United Brokers real estate agent Tere Lee, who has been selling homes in Alameda for 20 years. “Alameda is a prestige place where the houses hold their
value.’’
    Among other things, Alameda continues to draw buyers because of the variety of houses available. “We have a diverse inventory of housing, everything from Victorians to newer construction,’’ says Pagones. “The schools are very important, and, geographically, [Alameda is] located in the center of the Bay Area. That makes it an easy commute.’’
    Whereas the Steuers wanted a new home, Marty and Angela Gil were looking for vintage housing when their hunt brought them across the bay from the Peninsula, where both work. They looked for homes in the Redwood City area and couldn’t find anything they liked in their price range. A work colleague who lived in Alameda encouraged the couple to check out the Island and invited them over for a look. The Gils loved the Arts and Crafts architecture prevalent throughout Alameda.
    When late last year they put an offer on a spotless, East End 1950s bungalow with fireplace and hardwood floors, they were one of three bidders. But they got the house. When they moved in early this year, the neighbors came over to introduce themselves. And the previous, original owners, who raised three
daughters in the house, left a photo collage showing the transformation of the house over the decades, starting with pictures of its construction. The effort made the young couple feel welcomed in their new community.
    “It made us feel good about the house,’’ Marty Gil, who works in sales for a Redwood City food company, says. “It feels like we fit in here. People are friendly. It’s not necessarily more middle-class, but more down-to-earth. It has everything we need and nothing we really don’t.’’
    According to the U.S. Census, new residents like the Gils are boosting the population of the town toward the levels of the days before the Naval Air Station closed. From 1990 to 2000, a decade that saw both a deep recession and the base closure, Alameda’s population fell from about 76,000 to about 72,000; state figures indicate the population is now more than 74,000, while the same figures show that housing-vacancy rates in Alameda have dropped since 2000. Still, Alameda hasn’t escaped the housing slowdown. Monthly home sales in 2006 held steady at about 40 during the peak months of April through August, even as the number of homes for sale climbed from 39 to 109, according to market-trend information compiled for Harbor Bay Realty. But 2007 started with some signs of life. The average number of days a home stays on the market dropped to 30 in January, compared to 48 in December and 33 in January 2006,
according to the same data.
    Pagones says Alameda is a stable community that sees more than 5 percent to 7 percent turnover in home sales in a year. Housing stock in such stable communities tends to hold its value well, because there’s not a lot of new home construction to bottom out should the housing market go soft.
    “We don’t get a lot of turnover,’’ he says. “This is not a big relocation town. It doesn’t have a major employer bringing a lot of people in.’’
    Meanwhile, the average price of Alameda homes sold has been dropping steadily from $855,000 in April 2006 to $701,000 in February 2007, according to the Harbor Bay numbers. That figure is likely indicative of the fact that more buyers in Alameda are purchasing smaller two-bedroom houses as opposed to four-bedroom homes.
    David Gunderman, a real estate agent with Kane & Associates, confirms that the starter-home market—two- and two-plus bedroom homes—seems to be the hot pocket of the Island real estate market right now.
    “Another story you would hear a lot over the years was people coming to Alameda and finding that the shopping had improved and that Alameda had improved, and the secret was getting out. Well, the secret is out now,’’ says Gunderman, who moved to Alameda from San Francisco in 2000 because he and his partner, Andrew Raskopf, wanted a good place to start a family, which now includes two children. “It’s such a kid-friendly place.’’
    Alameda has also grown more diverse over the years, from a town that was 70 percent white in 1990 to one that’s now 28 percent Asian, 15 percent Latino, 4 percent black and 48 percent white, according to 2005 census estimates.
    Steuer agrees, saying it is a plus for raising his 2-year-old son, Avery, who will eventually attend Bayport’s Ruby Bridges Elementary School, one of the most ethnically and economically diverse schools in the city.
     “I’m Jewish, and my wife is Chinese, so it’s nice for him to have a variety of kids to play with,’’ Steuer says about his son. “Ruby Bridges was definitely a major draw for us. We could have gotten something a little less expensive, but it’s hard to resist a brand new K–5 school—and possibly a K–8—that’s two blocks away.’’
    Overall, agents are seeing a mixed bag of buyers, from young families to empty-nesters coming from within and outside the city.
    “They’re people who are priced out of San Francisco or Berkeley or getting ready to have kids,’’ say Harbor Bay Realty agent Maureen Shandobil. “My disclosure is that you can’t see a foreign film at midnight, but it’s safe. There’s a sense of community.’’
    At Bayport, where 340 of 485 total homes have been sold, a third of the buyers are people with growing families. About two-thirds are between the ages of 30 and 50, and 71 percent are married couples. The average age of children moving into Bayport is 8 years old, according the developer, the Warmington Group.
    Harbor Bay Realty agent Donn Gutierrez says the only kind of buyer he’s not seeing is the equity-seeking investor, the kind that was more prevalent during the Silicon Valley dot.com boom.
    “I see flickers of life in the market,’’ Gutierrez says. “The strategy for listing properties now is to be conservative with the list price. That way you get more buyers with multiple offers.”
    Catherine Egelhoff and Randy Block moved to Bayport in November from Piedmont. Egelhoff, who has worked in Alameda for almost 14 years, wanted to move to the Island for some time.
    “I like the parks, the diversity, the fact that it’s flat,’’ she says. “People are friendly. It just feels welcoming.’’
    After her first two sons graduated from Piedmont High School and her third son was about to enter ninth grade, she thought it would be a good time to move. They scoured the Island, looked heavily in the Gold Coast, but ultimately chose Bayport, because they thought the prices were a good value for the size of the homes. And they heard a lot of good things about Encinal High School.
    “I got positive feedback about the energy and the involved parents, and the principal is so well-loved,’’ Egelhoff says.
    But real estate agents say the majority of Alameda buyers are already Alameda residents, such as Albert Rubino, who is in the market to buy a house after renting in the Fernside District. Even in a new
development such as Bayport, more than half of the buyers so far have been Alameda residents, according to
sales figures.
    Rubino, a field technician for a general contractor, says it was his wife, Sabine, who wanted to move from San Francisco to Alameda six years ago. “She liked the environment,’’ he said at a recent Sunday open house on Versailles Avenue. “Everyone knows each other. It’s close-knit.’’
    The family has been looking in earnest to buy since fall 2006, and Rubino says that prices have come down, though only slightly. They like living on the East End, where Rubino’s third-grade son, Alex, attends Edison elementary and his daughter, Valerie, is a sixth-grader at Lincoln Middle School. But they are
looking all over the Island.
    It’s Valerie who checks the real estate ads every week and picks open houses for the family to view on the weekends.
    “Valerie has a lot of input,’’ Rubino says. “I break out the map, and she tells me where to go.’’