Wearing a cordless phone headset on one side and a Bluetooth headset on the other, you could say Paula Whitsell has her ears glued to the state of South Bay residential real estate.
"My staff calls it my Britney Spears look," said Whitsell, president and broker at Leal Real Estate Group. "This is headquarters. You're looking at it."
Based in downtown Chula Vista, the firm has about 30 agents in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Whitsell manages them all from her office overlooking Third Avenue.
It gives her a firsthand perspective on home sales in the city she's lived in since 1993. A former stockbroker for Wells Fargo, she has helped the office survive the market's ups and downs since joining Leal at its inception in 2003. For the past few years, she said, much of it has been up.
"2013 was excellent, better than 2012," Whitsell said. "South Bay has been coming up every year since 2009.
"My observation is the areas that were hurt in the downturn the most are the ones that are coming back -- Chula Vista especially. San Diego County-wise, it was at the top of the list in terms of foreclosures and short sales, and now Chula Vista has recuperated quite a bit," she said.
"Average sales prices have really come back; $300,000 to $350,000 is the average home price for South Bay. We were in Scripps Ranch the other day and just a regular condo there is $400,000. So that's a little different from down here, where you can actually see detached homes in that price range."
Leal Real Estate Group closed 169 transactions with a total sales volume of more than $61 million last year, Whitsell said. Through late April this year, the totals were 37 transactions and more than $12 million in sales.
While dedicated agents are the core of Leal's success, web marketing has been another factor in the firm's sales gains. Many potential clients who find Leal online are active-duty military personnel who want to live near Naval Base San Diego (32nd Street).
"The Internet allowed us to survive the downturn. We use it intensely," Whitsell said.
"We have a very active website and do a lot on Craigslist, Facebook and Twitter. We have MLS feeds from the entire state on our site. We don't restrict people. Some websites don't allow you to surf the MLS to your heart's content, but we do. So we get a lot of buyers' leads from our site," she said.
"We track our traffic so we know we've had people from Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany scanning the listings. I'm sure those are military people looking to get transferred. Now they're starting their search and that's where we get a lot of leads."
Whitsell predicts pent-up demand will result in 2014 being another good year for Leal.
The home inventory in South Bay isn't as high was she would like, but offers are still coming in. One listing received 18 offers in 24 hours, she said.
"It was impossible for buyers last year," she said. "Now it's settled down a bit. You might get two or three offers, so it's a little more competitive. You can actually get buyers into escrow; $300,000 to $400,000 is what's heating up the market in San Diego right now. The average time on the market is 15 days for most homes, depending on the area. We had one in Ramona that lasted three days."
The South Bay also is an active area for rehabs, Whitsell said.
"We're seeing a lot of cash buyers for the homes that suffered during the downturn. They're in bad shape but they rehab them and put them back on the market. That's where you're seeing a lot of the market right now. It's good for the buyers because when they walk into a property that's been thrashed and suffered with the downturn, and many times is not even in livable condition, they walk into what is a brand-new house," she said.
"Most rehabbers do a good job in that they do new flooring, paint, carpet, kitchens, bathrooms, and deal with any structural problems. A lot of our agents deal with rehabs and they hold open houses to give potential buyers the opportunity to see what a rehab looks like."
In return for her support and a successful 2014, Whitsell has one main request of those who work for Leal:
"The agents who come to the office every day and treat this like a job are doing very well. The ones who think transactions are going to fall out of the sky and show up once a week are not doing as well. Even if you work out of a home office, treat it as a job."