Home prices still booming outside King County
The real action in home prices lately isn't in King County, Wash., where price growth has stabilized.
Even in Pierce County, where homebuyers scalded by high prices in King County continue to snap up less expensive properties, price growth is slowing.
No, the fastest price growth in Western Washington is in Thurston, Kitsap and Whatcom Counties — home to Olympia, Bremerton and Bellingham, respectively — where the King County spillover is heating up other midsize metropolitan centers in the Puget Sound region.
In May, Tacoma was crowned the hottest housing market in the country. (That's in contrast to King County, where prices are inching along.)
But in the past few months, Thurston, Kitsap and Whatcom counties have outperformed Pierce County on some measures of home sales, according to new data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
All four counties are seeing rising home prices compared to last year. But Pierce County's year-over-year growth in home prices has actually decelerated from last year — a slowdown from double digits to mere high single digits.
That's not to say Pierce County doesn't remain an overheated market.
"People are moving here, home prices will continue to increase, inventory shortages will occur. That's our future," said Dick Beeson, principal managing broker at Remax Northwest in Gig Harbor.
But of the four counties, Pierce County had the slowest year-over-year home price growth in October, 9% to $365,000.
The county with the highest average growth? Thurston County, where median prices rose 11% in October from a year ago, to $348,300.
Kitsap County saw the highest jump in median sale price among Northwestern Washington's six large counties -- 12%, to $386,000.
Up north, Whatcom County clocked its highest median sale price ever, $419,000, beating seasonal trends. Generally, prices fall in the autumn and rise again in the spring.
And for the seventh month in a row, inventory was tighter in Thurston County than in any other large county in Northwestern Washington, in part the result of buyers from closer to Seattle moving to where they can afford more homes. Employment, too, is expanding, drawing new residents from around the country, said Michael Cade, the executive director of the Thurston Economic Council.
"To tell you the truth, people like it here," he said. "It's a nice place to live."
But the jury is still out when it comes to one popular explanation for rising home prices in Thurston County.
It has to do with gophers.
Stay with me.
When the Mazama pocket gopher, native to Thurston and Pierce Counties, was added to the endangered species list in late 2014, Thurston County builders and Realtors sounded the alarm. The gopher's habitat, on sandy plains in the south of the county, included plenty of land they were eyeing for new residential developments.
To comply with the new gopher codes, builders need to either certify their land is gopher-free, or obtain a federal permit allowing them to build if they take certain steps to mitigate the impact on gopher activity.
Hinging building permits on evidence of gopher activity would create "undeniable and continuing harm to Thurston County property owners and citizens," Olympia builders and the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce alleged in a 2015 complaint before the Western Washington Growth Management Board.
The builders predicted the gopher codes would slow development and create "unprecedented levels of economic uncertainty."
The complaint has been resolved, and a new inspection regime implemented — but if federal inspectors already found evidence of gopher activity on a planned development site, "you've been stuck," said Olympia land use attorney Heather Burgess.
Until the county approves a framework for gopher habitat preservation, those builders can't move forward. The framework is expected to be released in 2022, according to the Olympia Master Builders.
But builders' most dire predictions about the impact of the gopher on new construction haven't come to pass, said Tumwater planning manager Brad Medrud. Construction and permitting haven't decreased since the gopher was listed as a threatened species.
Tumwater, squarely in the middle of gopher territory, has seen similar residential growth as nearby towns less affected by the gopher.
In part, he said, that's because several large builders obtained blanket permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue to build on gopher habitat.
So for now, don't blame the gopher for the tight residential market in Thurston County.