When Ryan and Breanna Anderson decided they wanted to purchase a home in Lodi for their young family, they knew they would have to act quickly to take advantage of plummeting prices.
And though prices for homes in the area are down, so is inventory. And interest rates are near historic lows.
That's making it tougher to snap up bargain homes - and has led some to say Lodi's real estate market may be stabilizing.
"We'd been saving up and (knew) that there was a brief window that homes would be affordable," said Ryan Anderson, who is a youth pastor and teacher. "This was a rare opportunity for us to jump in."
Indeed, average prices on homes in Lodi have fallen 30 percent from last year, according to MetroList Services, a database for real estate professionals. A home in February 2008 that might have been priced for $288,269 went for about $197,296 in February of this year.
Couple those low prices with interest rates hovering around 4.6 percent, and you've got buyers on the hunt.
"Interest rates are the lowest they've been since 1971," said Ryan Sherman, president of the Lodi Association of Realtors.
But people like the Andersons aren't the only ones searching for their piece of the American Dream. Sherman estimates that only about 50 percent of those in the market are first-time home buyers. The other half is comprised of investors who will either fix houses up and resell them or rent them out.
That's part of what's makes the search for a new home so frustrating for first-timers.
"We were just shocked. We thought we'd have our pick," Ryan Anderson said. "Every time we'd get out-nudged. It was like a feeding frenzy."
The couple was out-bid on six homes before finally being able to purchase one - which had 17 offers on it as well.
It's that increase in interested buyers, along with closed transactions (up 5.1 percent over last year), that has many Realtors and lenders thinking that the market might be stabilizing. "What I do see in some of the sold data for 2009 is a stabilization for things," Sherman said. "From listed to sold, there is an increase for '09. That's in direct relation to the foreclosures."
The number of closed home sales in March of 2008 was 27, compared to 46 for March 2009. Sales did soar higher throughout the middle of 2008, peaking at 89 in September. But greater numbers are typical for that time of year, according to Paul Mertz, another Lodi-based Realtor who owns the Mertz Company. Given that logic, sales for the same months in 2009 should reflect that upward trend.
Good news for the real estate and mortgage lending industries, but not so good for potential buyers. In March of last year there were 434 houses on the market - but only 257 this March.
"We're supposed to get an influx of bank-owned properties," Mertz said. "I haven't seen it yet."
"When prices get to be 50, 60, 70 percent off, you get a lot of buyers in the market," said Steven Hook, of Residential Pacific Mortgage. "The challenge is that not all the markets have seen those declines."
Hook lives in Lodi and works between here and San Francisco. He said that a majority of properties in the Bay Area haven't come down in price like they have in San Joaquin County, causing buyers to hold off an making bids.
And if a family - with good credit and at least 3.5 percent for a down payment - is fortunate enough to find and secure that new home, they could pay less than most people rent for these days, says Ray Waechter of Realty World in Lodi.
"If a couple is living in an apartment, paying $800 (a month in rent), we can get them a condo for less than $800 a month," Waechter said. "If they're living in a 3-bed 2-bath for $1,200, we can get them a house to buy for less. Probably $1,000 or 1,100 (a month)."
Waechter said he could see prices getting somewhat lower, but felt interest rates wouldn't stay this low for long. "It's time to pull the trigger," he said.
However, the trick seems to be finding the target. For families like the Andersons lucky enough to find and purchase a home this year, the key seems to be sticking with it.
"We got frustrated and (our Realtor) Larry Underhill said, 'Stick with it,'" Ryan Anderson said. "We learned … patience and persistence."