House for sale on the corner of Hill and 11th street Tuesday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITYWIDE — As property values across the county continue to slump amid one of the weakest economies the nation has seen in years, Santa Monica appears to be an exception to that rule.

The Los Angeles County Office of the Assessor released assessment rolls earlier this month and the numbers for the county at-large look grim as the overall gross total slipped .09 percent for what officials called a moderate loss of less than $1 billion from last year. It is the first decline in values since 1996, but Assistant Assessor Robert Quon attributes the decline partially due to his office’s proactive review of 473,000 homes across the county.

In Santa Monica, the picture is a bit brighter with total property values coming in at a robust $23.5 billion, with an increase of $608 million from 2008 stats. The county recorded a 2.6 percent increase from last year’s roll, but some in the real estate business question that number.

Realtor Kate Bransfield was surprised to hear that the area increased at all considering the lukewarm real estate market.

“The market is kind of flat,” Bransfield said. “It has not gone up two percent or any percent.

“I had a number of clients call me up telling me that they got a notice [from the county] saying that their property values have declined.”

She said that a number of those same people then reported getting another letter from the county saying values have increased. She is at a loss to explain the discrepancy from the county report and what’s taking place on the street.

The Assessor’s Office confirmed that letters had been sent out to county residents, but officials were unsure how many were sent to Santa Monicans in particular.

Quon said he wasn’t exactly sure how Santa Monica came to increase in total value, but did offer some insights.

“Our experience is that the more affluent areas retain their value and did not suffer as much of a precipitous decline like Lancaster,” he said. “Places with fairly new construction are the ones that have had the steepest decline in value. That is borne out in Riverside County.”

He said that his office calculates changes in the total value based on change of ownership as well as proactive reassessments, a program the county has aggressively pursued this past year to relieve property taxes of some of the county’s residents hardest hit by the slumping real estate market.

While the Assessor’s Office claims that much of its proactive drive to reassess values was to decrease tax bills for owners, Bransfield questions how the county came to the conclusion that property values are up in Santa Monica.

She cited numbers from the Multiple Listing Service that do not support the county’s claims. She said that property values are off from last year. In some cases as much as 20 to 30 percent.

Numbers provided by the Combined Los Angeles Westside Multiple Listing Service illustrate her stance. Condo sales in the Wilshire/Montana neighborhood, locally known as Wilmont, were down 14 percent per square foot. From Jan. 1 through June 30 of 2008 square-foot rates were $664. During that same period in 2009 the price sank to $568.

Single family home sales during that period reflect a 24 percent decrease from last year.

Ocean Park was one of the few areas that has shown growth. The lowest median price for a home in that area is listed at just over $1 million, or up 76 percent from last year. The median price was up 29 percent and the highest was 25 percent higher than 2008. All impressive numbers considering the overall slide across the city.

While Bransfield disputes the county’s assessment numbers, she does believe that the market appears to have bottomed out in Santa Monica.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand out there,” she said. “There are a lot of people sitting on the fence, but when a good property that is well priced goes on the market we get a lot of responses.”

She said the onus is on sellers to set realistic asking prices for their properties.

“Buyers set prices; sellers and agents don’t,” she said. “We try to list prices at a strategic rate.

“Our goal is to reach all the buyers who are buying in that neighborhood,” she added. “A well priced property can still get offers.”

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