By Ray Linker
Observer Staff Writer
There have been some shifts in sales personnel in the real estate business in Union County in the past few weeks as well as earlier in the year as agents clamor to get the listings and sales of properties.
Whether or not the shifting of the nearly 50 real estate salespeople in Union County or the formation of new companies or demise of others had anything to do with actual sales is conjecture.
Overall, 2002 resulted in more sales of residential property than did 2001 and at slightly higher prices.
But there's no denying that relative to the number of people looking to buy there are a lot of houses on the market, some of them for a substantial amount of time.
"The inventory (of houses for sale) is extremely high, but houses are selling," said Patty Glaze of Valley Realty in Island City.
One other thing making it a buyer's market, local Realtors said, was the low interest rates, at below 6 percent in late 2002. Rates fell to 5.53 percent nationally just after Christmas and were at 5.61 on Monday.
A consistent seller for 18 years, Glaze said, "I had a better year (in 2002) than the previous year (2001). But sales were sporadic."
Last week, there were 150 single-family homes in Union County on the market, listed at an average price of $152,100. Of these homes, 84 are in La Grande, listed at an average price of $161,512.
Of the houses sold last year, it took 139 days, on average, to make a sale in La Grande. It was 126 days in the entire county.
The major changes in real estate companies in Union County in 2002 involved ERA Driggers. Owners Dave and Betty Driggers bought out Coldwell Banker Lester Realty in May and in December acquired the smaller Hometown Realty, including two of its three agents, Gary Koegler and Lorna Reed-Omann. Dick Veenhuizen, the other Hometown agent, joined Oregon Trail Realty.
Five agents left ERA Driggers in December and formed a Re/Max agency. They are Don and Becky Keeling, Randy and Shawna McKinnis and Holly Walker. Re/Max took over the offices previously occupied by Oregon Trail Realty, with owners Grant and Phyllis Saunders relocating to their home on Bearco Loop.
Betty Driggers was one of three agents who started Oregon Trail Realty in 1990. She formed ERA Driggers in 1994.
Another small company, Hartland Real Estate, has closed. Owner Gary Elhart was believed to be moving to Germany, other Realtors said. Elhart did not return phone calls to The Observer.
Arnie Hill was a Hartland agent who moved to ERA Driggers, which now has 12 sales agents, making it the largest firm in La Grande.
While admitting that the combining of the agencies contributed to ERA's success, Betty Driggers said that since May, her company's "written transactions almost doubled each month of 2002 over the same month in 2001.
"Considering the economy, the market was very good if not as fast and furious as in some years," she said.
The hardest homes to sell in the county were four-bedroom homes, staying on the market for an average of 136 days.
Three-bedroom homes sold the quickest in La Grande, 112 days. It took 133 days in the county to sell a three-bedroom house in 2002, while two-bedroom homes sold in 113 days. Countywide, two-bedroom homes sold for an average of $63,663 compared to $113,132 for three-bedroom homes.
According to statistics compiled for the Union County Board of Realtors by Mary Lou Dean of Abstract and Title Co., sale of 271 single-family homes closed in Union County in 2002, with 184 of those in La Grande. That compares to 246 in the county in 2001, of which 157 were in La Grande.
The figures include both those in the Multiple Listing Service and those not.
"If a house is priced right to the market, it can sell on the day it is listed," Betty Driggers said.
Of the 116 in 2001 and 120 in 2002 that were listed but never sold "generally the price has been the biggest factor," Driggers said.
Generally, people who had those listed did not want to reduce the price enough to sell the property, she indicated.
Sales generally were up, at least in the total dollar amount, during the latter half of the year, although December is always notoriously slow because of the holidays, Realtors said.
Glaze attributed the 2002 successes in large part to people wanting to take advantage of the low interest rates.
"And I'm seeing more people of retirement age, 55 to 65, moving into this area. My clientele has been a lot of early retirees, some research scientists, and local people just moving up or down."
Roger Goodman, owner of Century 21 Eagle Cap Realty, said, "The market is stable. I didn't see much of an increase or decrease in property values, maybe a slight increase."
Goodman said his company's 2002 sales were "good, slightly up from the year before."
He agreed that the "driving factor in sales has been the interest rates staying below 6 percent."
Phil Burling, owner of Ranch-N-Home, said his firm "had a reasonably good year. It wasn't a bust nor was it a boom. Our economy (in Union County) has not been hit as hard as some of the metro areas."
He didn't see prices drop in 2002, he said, "but they're not up as much as they have been in the past either."
Some clients sold larger properties and needed to reinvest for tax reasons before the end of the year, Glaze said. Others were buying properties in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, then fixing them up as rental-income properties.
Driggers, too, said, "With the stock market continuing to decline, we are seeing a lot of investors (for rental property). We're getting young people investing more than ever before. With low-interest loans, they can get a better return on their investment in property than in the stock market."
She added, "We're getting some relocation business, too (people moving into the area from other locations).
Homes for sale have a large price range, depending on square footage, when the house was built, location and other factors, Realtors said. An 840-square-foot home built in 1915 sold for $17,500. A 1979 house with 2,046 square feet sold for $325,000. The highest priced house sold in 2002 went for more than $1.6 million.