The Housing Scene

Short Takes: Million-Dollar Houses, Zombies and More

San Francisco may be a nice place to visit, but who among us can live there?

While the City by the Bay has some wonderful attributes and attractions -- the Golden Gate Bridge, sourdough bread and Alcatraz, among many others -- it also has the largest concentration of million-dollar homes of anywhere in the country.

According to search engine Trulia, 58 percent of the houses in the San Francisco metro area are worth $1 million or more. In the city proper, 63 percent of the houses are valued at least a million bucks -- the highest percentage in the nation. That's more than 3 in every 5 houses.

Two other Bay Area spots, San Jose and Oakland, rank second and third on the list, respectively. In San Jose, 43 percent of the houses are worth at least $1 million; in Oakland, it's 18 percent.

The number of vacant foreclosures is down 43 percent from a year ago, according to housing data bank RealtyTrac. The group says the war on vacant, so-called "zombie" foreclosures is being won.

At the same time, though, of the 1.5 million vacant residential properties nationally, 98 percent are not in foreclosure or even underwater.

Of the 84.7 million U.S. residences, 1.5 million were empty as of the end of September. But at last count, Trulia says vacant homes in the foreclosure process account for 1.3 percent of all vacant residential properties, and bank-owned homes that have been taken back by lenders accounted for 1.9 percent.

According to RealtyTrac economist Daren Blomquist, the overall inventory of homes in the foreclosure process has dropped 36 percent over the past year, so it's "not too surprising" to see a similarly dramatic drop in "zombie" foreclosures.

But what is surprising is that there are so many vacant homes where the homeowners do not appear to be in financial distress. "More than 63 percent of these vacant homes are not even encumbered by a loan; (they're) owned free and clear by the owner," Blomquist says.

"The fact that the homeowners are not selling, given the recovering real estate market in most areas, indicates that many of these properties are in poor condition and in neighborhoods that have been left behind by the housing recovery."

The days when people wouldn't dream of buying a house without seeing it first may be dwindling.

"With all of the technology we now have access to, you can get a comprehensive feel for a home without ever stepping foot in it," say the folks at Homes.com, an online listing service. "And more and more people are doing just that."

According to the latest National Association of Realtors' profile of homebuyers, 92 percent used the Internet to search for homes; 43 percent actually found the house they bought online.

Research by realty brokerage Redfin found that 21 percent of people responding to a recent survey made an offer on a house without seeing it in person. But NAR's latest figures show that less than 0.5 percent of all buyers bought their home sight-unseen.

Either way, though, there's no question that technology is playing a larger role in the real estate purchase. And why not? Sites like Homes.com now offer an all-inclusive home search that some predict will make going to see a house in person the exception, rather than the rule.

First, you can check out a photo gallery of the house, including street, aerial and map views. You can take a virtual tour and read all the property details, including lot size, when the place was built, property taxes, school districts and a whole lot more. Some sites will allow you to compute your commute times, and a few will offer your probable monthly costs, including utilities, association fees and insurance.

The latest wrinkle comes from CubiCasa, which is offering agents and listing services 3-D floor plans of houses for sale. The Bay Area company says it can turn any type of source file, even a hand-drawn image, into a usable floor plan with a guaranteed 24-hour turnaround. That would make visualizing a home's interior spaces easier than ever.

A portent of things to come: Major production builder Lennar has started an "affordable" house community in Austin, Texas, in which all the homes will include solar power as a standard feature.

The 120 houses in the first phase of Colorado Crossing are priced at about $200,000, but the solar panels add nothing to the cost, according to Lennar. Rather, owners will pay a "low, flat" monthly fee to the SunStreet Energy Group, the Lennar subsidiary that works with installers and monitors the rooftop systems. The solar panels are expected to generate about half of the homes' electricity needs.

Lennar currently has about 100 communities under development. Stay tuned.

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