Wesley G. Hughes, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/02/2010 08:00:24 PM PST

Eight land deals worth about $40 million, most of which are concentrated in the Inland Empire, have been completed in the last two months – a sign that home investors and builders are on the prowl for property again after a three-year drought, industry experts say.

The transactions cover San Bernardino County land ready for housing from Rancho Cucamonga to Victorville, and land in Riverside County and San Diego County, according to Les Whittlesey of Irvine-based Whittlesey Doyle, which brokered the deals.

They comprise about 335 acres and more than 1,500 lots, the firm said.

The deals include the sale of Cordoba, 135 finished lots for single-family homes in part of a single-family development in Victorville.

Another transaction is in Rancho Cucamonga – 81 finished lots in Ironwood Estates – on 35 acres, sold by Rancho2004 to Meritage Homes for an undisclosed amount.

In Fontana, Lewis Investment Co. LLC bought 76 acres in the northern part of the city just west of the a master-planned community of 3,526 residential units, two school sites and other facilities.

The previous developer of the site planned for 720 attached and detached residential units on 63 acres.

But those were different times.

Several of the transactions were through REO sales – properties that have gone back to the lender after unsuccessful attempts to auction them off.

But at the core of the buys is that buyers and sellers have finally adjusted to current market values, which have reset to 2003-04 values, Whittlesey said.

That’s caused builders who stopped buying two or three years ago to enter the market again, and investors are interested in land that has already been through municipal entitlement processes.

Those investors are interested in buying land ready for building homes, holding onto the property and then taking it to market “at the appropriate time,” Whittlesey said.

Some of his deals are meant for early starts and others are to be put on hold for development three to five years in the future. Even the projects intended for early development wouldn’t likely be on the market before the end of 2011 or early 2012, he said.

In addition, Whittlesey said, “I’ve got another three (deals) expected to close. Two next week and one the following week involving more than 800 units.”

Whittlesey also says land prices have stabilized at the 2003-04 levels.

But even with the recent activity reported by at least one broker, builders aren’t jumping for joy in a market full of good deals but little demand.

Statewide, Liz Snow, CEO of the California Building Industry Association, said, “There is some encouragement but it is not consistent. It feels like it (the housing market) has bottomed out but there are areas of uncertainty.”

As of November, California has the second lowest number of housing starts since 1964, when keeping records began, Snow said. And the Inland Empire has followed suit.

Snow set this time in history as a match with 2002-03 land values, but “it depends on the area,” she said.

The best news comes from the San Francisco Bay area, the coastal communities and parts of Orange County, she said.

No one contacted for this report expects the housing market to spring to life early next year but at least one, George Huang, economist for the San Bernardino County Economic Development Agency, said it’s the perfect time to buy a home.

But Huang had a couple of big “ifs” – if you are secure in your job and if you have the down payment.

Huang urged legislators to modify the tax laws to allow potential homeowners to tap their retirement accounts without penalty for their down payments.

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