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October 28, 2007

Falling home prices are familiar to longtime residents of valley

This isn't the first -- nor arguably the worst -- real estate downturn in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Falling home prices may be new to the 220,000 people who have arrived in the valley since 2000, but the region's old-timers well remember the huge declines during the mid-1990s and early 1980s.

But what caused those housing downturns -- high interest rates and huge job losses -- was different from what's causing today's slump.

"In 1981, which was a worse market than this, the Federal Reserve raised the interest rates to over 20 percent and just destroyed the real estate market," said Mike Zagaris, president of PMZ Real Estate in Modesto.

Those sky-high loan rates made mortgages so unaffordable that home prices plummeted to compensate.

By 1982, Stanislaus County homes were worth an estimated 12.5 percent less than they had been worth the year before, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, the government agency that tracks house prices.

Home values dropped again in 1983 and 1984 before starting to recover in 1985.

But as virtually always happens, the housing market eventually recovered. Stanislaus home values climbed more than 11 percent in 1988 and nearly 24 percent in 1989.

Then the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, causing the first of several severe jolts to the region's housing market. That magnitude 7.1 temblor didn't cause much physical damage in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but it badly shook California's economy.

Another costly natural disaster, the Oakland Hills firestorm, hit in 1991. Then an economic disaster hit: The end of the Cold War convinced the federal government to close 21 military bases in California, including Castle Air Force Base in Atwater.

There was a nationwide recession during the early 1990s, which hit the Northern San Joaquin Valley particularly hard.

More than a dozen major manufacturing plants closed in the region, including Campbell Soup, Escalon Frozen Foods, Heinz ketchup, ConAgra Banquet Frozen Foods, Nestlé Nescafé, A&W Brands, James River Corp., Victor Fine Foods, Louis Rich, Contadina and United Foods.

Thousands of valley residents were laid off in the mid-1990s. Stanislaus County's unemployment rate averaged nearly 17 percent in 1993 (compared with 8 percent last month).

As people lost their jobs, they couldn't afford their mortgages. Foreclosures rose, prices fell and houses sat empty. New home construction almost stopped.

Stanislaus County's home values fell every year from 1991 through 1996 and until halfway through 1997, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight.

John Hillas still laments how much he lost on the Modesto home he bought 15 years ago. Hillas is a property appraiser and is on The Appraisal Institute's national board of directors, so he thought he knew what he was doing when he paid $150,000 for a house in 1992.

"I sold it in 1995 for $130,000," Hillas said. "Not only did I have to write a check (to pay the shortfall for what I owed on the mortgage and for the real estate sales commission), I lost all of the down payment I had made on the house."

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