Friday, September 18, 2020
Sept. 18, 2020

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House hunters feel burn of hot market in Clark County

Vancouver developer building homes to meet first-time buyers’ budgets

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
6 Photos
Jeff Wilkins, left, and his daughter, Emily, both of Vancouver, spot their new home at the Four Seasons Lane subdivision, one of Ginn Development’s projects in Vancouver. The homes are priced sell for less than Clark County’s median home price. Reservations for the first homes are underway.
Jeff Wilkins, left, and his daughter, Emily, both of Vancouver, spot their new home at the Four Seasons Lane subdivision, one of Ginn Development’s projects in Vancouver. The homes are priced sell for less than Clark County’s median home price. Reservations for the first homes are underway. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

A home shouldn’t have been so hard to find, Morganna Figueroa recalled.

The 37-year-old had just ended a relationship when house-hunting shaped up to be its own kind of heartache.

“My ex-boyfriend and I separated and as we were living together in his house, I was the one to have to move,” she said. Approved for a loan for up to $250,000, she was hopeful to land a house in a nice school district and a safe neighborhood for her preteen daughter. But, as many first-time buyers today will say, homes priced below $300,000 are scarce in Clark County.

Houses in June sold for a median price of $361,000, the highest month on record in Clark County, according to the Regional Multiple Listing Service. Prices have risen in part because enough buyers are willing and able to pay that much for homes. But others fear the costs are leaving them behind. Renters especially worry they won’t find homes in their price range.

Figueroa wanted stability for herself and for her daughter. But that meant scouring the county for a home that checked all of the boxes: a fenced yard for the dog, near schools, near Interstate 5 so she could commute into Portland.

“I didn’t want her moving anymore,” Figueroa said of her daughter. “We had rentals that sold and we lost our housing.”

Competition remains high for houses in Clark County. Inventory, a statistic that calculates the number of months it would take the current stock of housing to be sold, clocked in at 2.1 months in June. Inventory has not been greater than 2.2 months since March 2016, and not more than three months since March 2015.

Homes in demand

Many of the homes Figueroa found in her price range were at the county’s outskirts or in disrepair. One 1,000-square-foot home was tagged for $240,000 even though she said it had an old roof, a broken fence, a water-damaged bathroom, torn carpets and at least one broken window.

“The house was in original condition and built in the ’60s and looked like it was poorly constructed to begin with,” she said. “I started getting discouraged fast. Everything was getting 20 to 30 offers and lots of viewings.”

Newer homes in her price range are even harder to come by. Construction costs have risen steadily in Clark County and the Portland metropolitan area. There is a confluence of factors, according to housing experts, such as a surging population adding to the ranks of house hunters; but all the while wood and steel has gotten more expensive, as have the construction workers whose services are in greater demand.

“It’s not for a lack of desire on the builder side,” said Terry Wollam, managing broker for ReMax Equity Group in Vancouver. “Labor prices are increasing year-over-year over 35 percent, along with other products used in building homes that have substantial year-over-year increases in costs. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”

One developer trying to tackle that problem is Ginn Development. The Vancouver company has broken ground on four new subdivisions in the Landover-Sharmel neighborhood that could provide more than 400 homes aimed at first-time buyers.

Sales opened for the first phase of homes less than two months ago, but already a dozen are sold at prices between $260,000 and $320,000. Buyers are jumping at the properties even though there isn’t even a model to show — just blueprints at a business office in the back of a strip mall.

“I get a lot of people driven by the price,” said Olivia Bjerke, a broker.

That price point has not come without some concessions. The homes are all attached, with garages accessed via alleyway, on 1,400- to 1,800-square-foot lots.

“It is dense,” said Patrick Ginn, owner of the company. But, he added, that is the only way the project pencils out. He said this saves money on the development of land and maximizes the space so that homes can sell at the lower price point.

“We can really only pay a certain price for land and development. Realistically, in today’s market, we can’t deliver a house on 5,000 square feet for $280,000. It’s just not possible,” he said, adding that it will take selling about 20 of his homes to turn the same profit another builder makes selling a custom $800,000 home. “It’s definitely a different business model.”

Optimism

Ginn’s small lots weren’t a concern for Jeff Wilkins. The 32-year-old military veteran leapt at the chance for a new home for his wife and daughter. Although it would be a tight fit, he said the homes come with central heating and air conditioning and other benefits he had not found in an older home.

“The quality is a lot better than what’s out there,” he said. “The AC units alone would have been another $5,000. Just, everything we were looking for was already added in.”

Wilkins said he understands a lot of people his age are struggling to find entry-level housing. Rent at his earlier residence was rising fast, and he was concerned about finding a home within their budget and near his daughter’s school.

“We prayed about it,” he said.

Figueroa, too, found a home. After three months of coming up empty, her real estate agent found a townhouse in Hazel Dell for $238,000 that needed only a few improvements. In the year since she’s owned it, she said the value has gone up $25,000. But she’s mainly happy for her and her daughter.

“As a single mom, I made the American dream happen. I gave my daughter a place to call home, and stability,” she said.

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