'Bargain priced' is a relative term for real estate in Vail, Aspen and Tahoe

Tahoe. Aspen. Vail. Sounds like locales where if you have to ask how much the homes cost you shouldn't be buying there. But guess what? They're suddenly more affordable ... depending on what you call "affordable."

First, Lake Tahoe. Home to the fabled Heavenly and Squaw Valley ski resorts in California and Nevada's Sierra Nevada mountains, buyers suddenly have snapped-to after a long vacation from purchasing vacation homes. Following drops as steep as Heavenly's 3,500-foot vertical slope, sales of all units in the resort area climbed 22% in 2009 from 2008, according to data released by Chase International, a real estate agency specializing in the Tahoe-Reno market. The median price of a single-family home sank 22% in 2009 to $576,875, from $744,124 the year before.

"It's the first time in over a decade that we're seeing first-time buyers," said Sue Lowe, vice president and corporate broker for Chase International. "We're seeing lots of second-home buyers back now too. They finally can afford to buy."

Especially if condos are the goal. In Incline Village, on the northeast side of the lake in Nevada, median condo prices slid 33% in 2009 to $350,000, from $521,550 in 2008. If that's not low enough, Lowe says some newer units, including those close to ski areas, currently are for sale for as low as $125,000. Now that's a bargain!

A rash of foreclosures and short sales has helped spur the local real estate economy. And Tahoe sellers get that it's not 2003 any more.

"Overpriced properties won't even be shown," Lowe says.

Shoppers seeking manses at the high end -- and at Tahoe, we're talking $18 million for a four-bedroom in 7,328 square feet in the Glenbrook community -- still won't find any steals, Lowe says. Those homes were the last to head south price-wise, so buyers undoubtedly are waiting for prices to inch lower. The dearth of available jumbo loans also has put a crimp in high-end sales. But Lowe's office recently sold eight lakefront homes on the east shore of Tahoe, the tonier section of the lake, so people with bucks to burn apparently aren't too squeamish.

Heading farther east to Aspen, in the Rocky Mountains, buyers looking for deals can find "bargains," but that's a relative word in that glam haven. Sales were down "substantially" in 2009 from the year before, says Aspen Real Estate Company broker Tony Scheer, and prices are still tumbling. What does that mean for those seeking vacation homes at the lower end?

"Affordable condos are about $1 million to $1.5 million," Scheer said, "which is considered low-priced here." Compared to the peak, when they went for up to $2.5 million, they are. Sellers at the high end -- listings between $5 million and $20 million -- must be looking for the next great thing, because there currently are 50 homes listed in that range.

"There's been an uptick in interested buyers and sales in the last three months, but prices are still dropping," Scheer said. Maybe when condos reach $750,000 and become more "affordable," sales volume will head farther northward.

In Vail, which also experienced the "real estate tsunami that hit a year ago," prices are down 10% to 20% from a year ago, but sales are beginning to edge up, says Slifer Smith & Frampton Real Estate broker Carroll Tyler. Vail Village, home to some of the country's best skiing, hasn't seen much of a drop in price, because "there is no available land there, none." Owners, who apparently aren't in a big hurry to sell, are staying put, Tyler says. However, "some properties are on the market that haven't been for years," including two Vail Village properties in the $15-million range. Such a deal!

"People are back in this market," Tahoe agent Lowe said. "We hope it will go on." And on.
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