Perched on a hillside overlooking Ventura, a Mediterranean-style villa with a stunning ocean view was listed for sale at $2.3 million in September 2017.
Today, scorched land remains where the 3,800-square-foot home once stood, a remnant of the devastating Thomas Fire in December.
The property — marked down to $1.3 million — is at the high end of at least 25 burned-out lots that are for sale or have been sold in middle-to-upper income residential neighborhoods in Ventura, where more than 400 homes were destroyed by the largest wildfire in California history, records show. And more burned-out lots could be added. The low-end price to date is $348,150, according to the Multiple Listing Service.
Clustered mainly in the Ondulando-Clearpoint area, the lots came on the market beginning in February after debris and ash were cleared, dirt was compacted (foundations were scrapped) and soil was tested for contaminants such as lead, paint, pesticides and asbestos. Potential buyers are expected to be builders or investors seeking to turn a profit by constructing and selling high-end homes — which will boost the community’s property values, experts say.
For one woman who decided to sell her lot, the prospect of waiting two or three years to move into a new house was too daunting. “I’m too old,” said the homeowner who wished to remain anonymous. Escaping the blaze with only her purse, cat and car, she couldn’t stomach living in temporary housing like a recreational vehicle or mobile home.
But even her newly purchased home offers little solace. “I don’t sleep at night,” she said.
Rebuilding a home can be an overwhelming task, said Joe Virnig of Re/Max Gold Coast Realtors, the woman’s agent. “Decisions are unique in every individual circumstance,” he said. “It’s not like the insurance company is going to swoop in and make you a replica of what you had. As a matter of fact … a lesson to come out of all this is that most people were underinsured.”
Another homeowner electing to sell his lot is considered “lucky.” He bought a home at 888 Villa Arroyo in November 2017, shortly before the Thomas Fire devastated the neighborhood in early December. Because his family hadn’t moved in, they didn’t lose any belongings.
“This is a family that really wanted to move to that neighborhood and chose it carefully because of the very good school district,” said the listing agent, Jody Neal of Berkshire Hathaway. “They were looking to settling down their roots there. We all know what happened with the fire. It’s a tragedy.”
Specializing in selling lots and vacant land, Neal noted, “You almost never see” multiple similar lots for sale in an existing neighborhood with utilities, as well as an expedited permitting process.
“The pricing is always difficult because the normal things that people rely on to set prices for residential properties don’t exist,” he said. “So you have to use a method that sort of works backward from a finished product.” In this instance, Neal’s client bought the home for $705,000 and the vacant lot — where only part of the driveway remains — is listed for $455,000.
Neal expects interested buyers will be speculators who store wealth in “land banking” — holding on to parcels for years with the hope that property appreciation pays off in the future — or builders capable of constructing homes to sell for a premium.
“Most people who buy lots are using cash and not financing through a bank,” he said. “Whoever buys these things will be someone with the ability to build. … The majority of them are not end users.”
The silver lining is that the hundreds of rebuilt homes in the Ondulando-Clearpoint neighborhoods and surrounding areas will be a tremendous economic stimulus for the city of Ventura, according to Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast.
Schniepp noted, however, that possible labor shortages and rising supply costs are a concern because of competing construction demands — 8,900 buildings were destroyed in a Sonoma County wildfire in October and mudslides in January wiped out 107 homes and damaged 1,400 more in the Montecito-Carpinteria area.
It’s just one more factor when considering whether to rebuild a home.
While the fire disaster is “socially disruptive,” Schniepp said that it has provided the “perfect catalyst” for a few people whose circumstances prompted them to sell their lots — which account for a tiny percentage of the more than 400 homes destroyed in Ventura.