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San Juan economic signs point to 'cautious optimism'

So, the real estate market is sluggish. Your town utility bill is going up. You're paying more at the pump.

Take a look at the bright side: Overall, the island economy is not too bad.

Consider this:

First, a higher percentage of residents are working here than in any other Washington county but one. San Juan County had the second-lowest unemployment rate in Washington state in April -- 3.6 percent, with 8,210 people working and 300 claiming unemployment benefits. That’s a drop from 4.3 percent from the first quarter of the year, when some 350 islanders claimed benefits, acording to the state Employment Security Department.

Compare that to Washington’s unemployment rate, 4.9 percent in March and 4.7 percent in April. The national jobless rate is 5 percent.

And, locally, there are jobs to spare. Minnie Knych is director of the Northwest Workforce Development Council in Friday Harbor, part of a state agency that connects islanders with jobs. "For anyone wanting to work, there is someone looking to hire them," she said. "It depends on how particular you are. There are jobs out there — good-paying jobs, not just summer jobs."

Knych said jobs available in the San Juans range from $12 to $15 an hour — with full benefits after three months and raises at six months — to $30,000 to $45,000 a year. She said benefits that come with county jobs are the probably the best and the pay "is highly competitive."

Second, islanders are spending money closer to home. The Town of Friday Harbor is reporting record sales tax receipts, although lodging tax revenues are soft. Year to date, the town has received $382,010 in sales tax revenue, up from $356,575 last year. But lodging tax receipts are essentially on par with the same period last year.

"It's the whole 'buy local' thing," said Liz Illg, a Friday Harbor Town Council member and economic consultant. "Islanders are finding it's more cost-effective to buy goods here than to take the ferry and buy on the mainland. We've hit a critical mark."

Bill Watson of the San Juan County Economic Development Council said some local business owners he's talked to say they are "feeling good."

"Some say it's been a little slow but we haven't had the good weather. Others say they are ahead of where they were last year," he said. "It's too early to say how our high season is going to be. But I'd say that most people are optimistically cautious."

Third, islanders are being patient when it comes to buying or selling a home. You’re likely to see more investment in higher-mileage vehicles than homes for a while. And while home sales have slowed, homes that are selling are still commanding the highest prices in the state.

"People are cautious," Watson said. "We're currently lagging the national trend in real estate. People are taking their time and waiting to see what's going to happen. But property values are holding, they're not significantly reduced."

In San Juan County in May, there were 79 new listings, down from 109 in May 2007, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, which tracks real estate data in 19 Western Washington counties.

There were 437 total active listings, up from 348 in May 2007. There were 12 pending sales, down from 25. There were 11 closed sales, down from 26. The median price was $569,000, down from $578,500 a year earlier but still the highest in Western Washington. King County was second with a median price of $399,950.

In San Juan County in April, there were 72 new listings, up from 49 in April 2007. There were 398 total active listings, up from 273. There were 12 pending sales, down from 35. There were nine closed sales, down from 22. The median home price was $571,000, the highest in the region and up from $434,750 a year earlier. King County’s median was the second-highest at $410,000.

What was happening in the region that month? The number of pending home sales reached their highest level in eight months, but prices were down about 5.5 percent compared to the same month in 2007.

In San Juan County in March, there were 78 new listings, down from 74 in March 2007. There were 346 total active listings, down from 267. There were 10 pending sales, down from 16. There were 10 closed sales, the same as in March 2007. The median home price was $412,000, a drop from $452,500 a year earlier.

On San Juan Island alone, there were 46 real estate transactions in first quarter 2008, a drop from 52 in first quarter 2007, according to Merri Ann Simonson, who authors a quarterly real estate market report for Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands. The dollar volume dropped from $29 million to $15 million. (Her figures include information from Real Market Data LLC, which tracks non-broker real estate sales as well as those listed with the Northwest MLS).

“The dollar volume being down more than the number of transactions indicates lower average sale prices,” she reported. “The median price for a previously owned home on less than five acres for the last 12 months is $479,500, as compared to the 2007 price of $480,000. During the first quarter, we had only one property close in excess of $1 million, as compared to seven closings the first quarter of 2007. Historically, the first quarter of the year is the least active.”

If you want to sell your home, consider this advice from Simonson.

“Typically, when someone sells a home, their next home is approximately 50 percent more expensive,” she writes. “Consider this example: If your current home is listed at $400,000 and sells for 95 percent of asking price, you’ve reduced your price by $20,000. However, if the home you buy is listed at $600,000 and you also purchase it at 95 percent of list price, the reduction you received is $30,000, for a net gain of $10,000 in total equity.

“Pricing your property is still the most important ingredient in determining whether you will be successful in finding a buyer. Other factors that influence a successful sale are preparation, presentation and property exposure to the buying public. Pricing your property at its true market value and remaining flexible on terms will be much more important than in the past few years.”

If you want to buy a home, Simonson has this advice: “For qualified buyers, low interest rates and safe, stable financing is available. Increased inventory means better selection and potentially more favorable negotiations. Owning a home helps insulate you from future increases in housing costs due to rising prices and rents.

“Puget Sound history tells us that real estate is still one of the best long-term investments. Per the Federal Reserve, between 1995 and 2004, the average renter accumulated $4,000 in wealth. In contrast, the average homeowner accumulated $184,400. Bottom line: 2008 represents the best window that buyers will have to find excellent deals with excellent financing. Finance cost will rise as the national economy recovers.”

Jim Knych, associate broker of Kent Meeker Real Estate Services, said it's a buyer's market in the San Juans. "More potential buyers are from the island," he said. "Prices are steady now and they can get in on it and get something."

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