The Bay Area county where pandemic home sales skyrocketed (and aren't slowing down)

SONOMA CO., Calif. (KGO) -- Homes selling for way above list price is standard practice in San Francisco or San Jose. It's also becoming the new normal in one of the Bay Area's most rural counties: Sonoma.

Zillow data analyzed by ABC's data journalism team shows a steep climb in homes selling above asking price in Sonoma County since the onset of the pandemic. In January 2020, only about 15% of homes in Sonoma County sold for above list price. By December 2020, 39% of homes were selling for more than asking.

The amount of money buyers are spending over list price saw the largest jump of any Bay Area county -- 73% in one year.

"Anything below a million, there are dozens of offers," said Alain-Martin Pierret, a Compass real estate agent in Sonoma County. "We have noticed that if it's turnkey, well priced and ready to move in, people are willing to pay above asking price."

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Pierret said regularly his homes are in contract before they're even listed on MLS.

Sonoma County has long had its appeal to home buyers, with its beautiful coastline and world renowned wineries. But when the first COVID-19 lockdown hit California, it had another selling point to wealthy San Francisco and Silicon Valley residents: space, and lots of it.

"We saw a lot of people looking for a second home, and we also saw a lot of people that were saying, 'We don't need to be in an urban or suburban environment anymore. We can work from anywhere,'" said Maurice Tegelaar, also a local real estate agent.

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Suddenly, Pierret and Tegelaar became a lot more busy starting around April 2020. It hasn't slowed down much since, especially in the luxury market. The first quarter of 2021 at Compass saw a 300% increase in Sonoma County home sales between $2 million and $3 million compared to the year before.

Business dipped slightly during August and September of 2020, as wildfires raged in and around Sonoma County, but the effect was hardly noticeable.

"If you're in the kitchen of your beautiful home and you burn tortillas in the oven, you're going to trigger the alarm and the kitchen is full of smoke. When you open the window the day after, there may be a little bit of smell but that's it," said Pierret. "Life resumes. The quality of life is so exceptional in Sonoma for the very reason that we have space for everybody."

Pierret described an idyllic life in Sonoma County, where you can leave your door unlocked and buy fresh-from-the-farm produce before you pop by your favorite winery -- the perfect place to feel far, far away from the pandemic.

Tegelaar's clients seemed to feel the same way: "They said, 'I can deal with fire, I can deal with all that. I can't deal with COVID and the pandemic. I need a place to be.'"

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While the Sonoma County real estate market shows no signs of slowing down, we're still not talking about San Francisco home prices here. The median home value in the county is about $712,000, according to Zillow. While many homes are selling for over asking price, it's not typically hundreds of thousands of dollars higher.

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As the pandemic starts to (hopefully) wind down in the Bay Area, will the Sonoma real estate market do the same? Pierret and Tegelaar believe the region's appeal will outlast the lockdown era -- for those who can afford it.

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"We see a lot of young, talent executives, millennials in their mid-30s to mid-40s who have exceptional jobs, but they have realized can work anywhere they want to," said Pierret. "They're starting to say I'm not going to wait until 55 or 60 to have my dream country home. I'm going to buy it now, I'll work there when I want to, I can go back to the city, but I'm going to start to enjoy my life immediately."
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